Mariner head girls soccer coach Jefferson Swift doesn’t want his team to get ahead of itself.
He’s seen it before, and he’s careful not to look too deeply into one result. It’s the type of feeling that may accompany a young team when an upset occurs, particularly when that victory comes against North Fort Myers, the defending District 3A-13 champion.
“Although we beat them this year, they are the team to beat in the district,” said Swift, alluding to the 3-1 win on Dec. 15. “They are the better team right now, not necessarily talent-wise, but experience-wise.
“Although we’re the No. 1 seed going into the district tournament,” he continued, “they’re the favorite. They know it. We know it. And everyone in the community knows it.”
Maybe Swift is looking at North Fort Myers’ 8-0 thrashing of Lehigh on Friday. Or maybe he’s looking at the Red Knights’ 16-2-1 record.
But the Tritons could very easily be the favorite. At 16-2-3, they have the one of the best records in the district and arguably the most confidence, with quality wins over North Fort Myers, Bishop Verot and Fort Myers. They also have ties against 14-win Estero and 15-win Ida Baker.
Despite the success, Swift knows his team is lacking an important variable — experience. The Tritons start nine freshmen and sophomores.
“If we meet them again, it would be in a district championship game,” Swift said. “Do you want the experience on your side? If you got to choose, would you want the youth or the experience? I would take the experience.”
Yet, here we are. Mariner is enjoying one of its best seasons in school history, which certainly wasn’t the expectation after graduating two of its most productive players — Holly Fritz and Sarah DiRoma.
“It’s really impressive,” said sophomore Julissa Chimelis, one of the team’s newest defensive additions.
Chimelis, who scored 26 goals as a freshman, had been a huge offensive weapon for the Tritons for most of this season. But against smarter teams with faster players, Swift knew he would need more. He looked ahead and saw a team like North Fort Myers in the district championship. He needed an even playing field.
So he moved Chimelis to the center of defense.
Then he kept freshman Taylor Yount, who’s led the team with 26 goals, up top. She’s added offensive punch.
And as for the youth?
While there are nine freshman and sophomores who start, almost all of them start on the same U15 and U16 club team over the offseason. Chemistry was never an issue.
“I’m not teaching these girls how to play soccer,” Swift said. “They already know. All I’m doing is putting them in the right positions to have success on the field.”
In such a shortened season – the regular season began on Oct. 28 and will end on Jan. 11, a total of just 76 days — Swift was aware that he had to make the most of what was given to him.
Four years ago, he inherited a team that was talented and experienced, too. In 2012-13, his first year, he won a district title. But over the next three years, he would struggle to find the right pieces.
A season ago, the Tritons’ 13-5-2 campaign was among its best in six years, yet they lost in the district semifinals to Ida Baker.
“I think you look at it, and you’ve seen how much we’ve grown as a team,” senior defenseman Hannah Theirault said. “We have a lot of new girls compared to last year, and we’ve come together, and we’ve become an even better team.”
A pattern also started to emerge last season. Swift took five freshmen on varsity. This winter, he took in another five. He hasn’t been afraid to trust that youth.
“It’s a learning curve and we’re still learning,” Swift.
Yet, the Tritons aren’t having problems seeing results as they do it.
And as they move forward in the district playoffs, potentially facing North Fort Myers one more time in the championship, they may get to answer the question they’ve been avoiding.
How much does experience truly matter?
District Playoff Schedule
Cape Coral vs. Port Charlotte, 1:00 p.m.
Mariner vs. Dunbar, 3:00 p.m.
Lemon Bay vs. Cypress Lake, 5:00 p.m.
North Fort Myers vs. Island Coast, 7:00 p.m.
Gateway vs. LaBelle, 6:00 p.m.
Semifinal 1, 5:00 p.m. at Ida Baker
Semifinal 2, 7:00 p.m. at Ida Baker
Semifinal 1, 5:00 p.m. at North Fort Myers
Semifinal 2, 7:00 p.m. at North Fort Myers
Semifinal 1, 5:00 p.m. at Clewiston
Semifinal 2, 7:00 p.m. at Clewiston
Semifinal 1, 5:00 p.m. at Evangelical Christian School
Semifinal 2, 7:00 p.m. at Evangelical Christian School
4A-12 Final, 7:00 p.m. at Ida Baker
3A-13 Final, 7:00 p.m. at North Fort Myers
2A-12 Final, 7:00 p.m. at Clewiston
A-8 Final, 7:00 p.m. at Evangelical Christian School