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County gets a kick from soccer playoffs

It’s hard to pinpoint when it all began.

Soccer had always been good in spurts around here, boasting its share of electrifying players and contending teams.

But good, competitive soccer is no longer a trend in Manatee County. Trends come and go. They have the staying power of cheap chewing gum.

This is no trend. The playoffs are here — girls soccer tournaments get rolling next week — and once again, we marvel at how the locals are sitting.

This is their time now. Football season, which stole some of the soccer players’ limelight because of Manatee High’s run to the Class 5A state championship game, is over. Wrestling and basketball have a handful of weeks before their playoffs start. And baseball and softball players are just getting warmed up.

(Aren’t we all?)

Saint Stephen’s girls, fresh off consecutive appearances in the regional finals, are the top seed in Class 2A-District 11. Lakewood Ranch sits atop Class 4A-District 10, a notch above second-seeded Palmetto, which always seems to be in prime position this time of year.

Manatee’s play in Class 5A-District 10 was good enough to clinch the No. 2 seed and keep the Hurricanes at home for the semifinals, which is nice, considering they play Naples Gulf Coast.

And Southeast, which hasn’t been to the regional playoffs since 2004, owns the second seed in Class 3A-District 11, putting the Noles a win away from the real postseason.

If this seems like nothing more than a laundry list, well ... it is. But it’s a list with merit. You think Manatee County, you think football — and let’s be honest, that will not change anytime soon. Football still packs the bleachers and dominates the conversation and fuels athletic departments with much needed dough.

But soccer isn’t a passing fad. It was just last year when Saint Stephen’s and Palmetto’s boys teams clinched state final four berths on the same day. Lakewood Ranch alum Lindsay Thompson is a hit at Florida, Manatee graduate Cristian Raudales earned all-conference honors at Florida Gulf Coast University, and Palmetto’s Becca Foy and Grae Turner were part of a Polk State College team that nearly played for a Juco national title.

These are good players. These are good teams. And these are good players and good teams who have all become better at the same time, which benefits everyone — the fans get to see some good soccer, and the players improve by seeing solid competition each night.

Next week, the girls playoffs begin. The week after that, it’s the boys, where teams such as Palmetto, Lakewood Ranch, Manatee and Saint Stephen’s are jockeying for choice positioning in district tournaments, and looking to engineer more long, successful runs.

It’s soccer time in Manatee County. And it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

John Lembo, sports writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2097.