By Rick Nolte, Sports Editor
NORTH PORT — Lee Thomas was racking his brain as his North Port High School girls soccer team struggled through another match.
A week after absorbing a three-goal loss to Riverview, the Bobcats were staring at another big deficit early at Lakewood Ranch and doing little to inspire hopes of making a comeback.
“I was searching for something,” Thomas recalled.
So was junior midfielder and team leader Nina Troche, who was on the field experiencing another drubbing.
“The formation we were in wasn’t working,” she said. “We couldn’t get going, didn’t have any punch.”
Troche and senior Saravya Kamarajugadda drew on their experience as teammates on an under-17 club team based in Brandon for a possible solution. They felt adopting a triangle alignment in the midfield that was successful for their West Florida Flames team might kick-start the Bobcats.
There was a problem, though.
“I was worried (Thomas) would think we were questioning him,” Troche said. “We almost didn’t say anything.”
Pardon the pun, but there was no offense taken when the strategical adjustment was offered.
“We had to try something,” Thomas said. “What we were doing wasn’t working. Sometimes the people who are playing have the best ideas on what to do.”
That was the case here.
Thomas welcomed the input, employed it the rest of the game, and although it didn’t result in a victory, it provided the spark for a run that saw the Bobcats go 11-1-1 the rest of the regular season.
“From that point, we jelled as a team,” said Thomas, whose team finished 14-5-1 for the season. “It gave us a strong core in the middle of the field. Ultimately, it’s what led to the success of the team this year.”
And Troche, a varsity starter as a freshman, was the point player in the turnaround. Occupying the top of the triangle, where her talents in attacking, distributing and transition were maximized, Troche had team-highs of 14 goals and 13 assists as the Bobcats advanced to the District 4A-11 finals for the first time in school history.
For her performance this season, Troche has been chosen the Sun’s All-Area girls soccer player of the year.
Thomas pointed to the virtual even split of Troche’s totals as the foundation for what he called a “fantastic” season. She and consistency were one for the Bobcats.
“Some players with her skills will get two, three (goals) in a streak of games, then maybe nothing for a couple,” the coach said. “What we were going to get with Nina was never an issue. She was providing something every game. She never failed to have a quality game.”
Not surprisingly, Troche’s attitude is total team. Seeing a teammate, one of whom is sister Adrianna, a freshman who often occupied one of the triangle’s other points, score is just as rewarding as netting a shot herself.
“I can’t pick one,” she said. “Both are so gratifying because I know what it means for the team and the other person.”
Her place in the triangle played right to that philosophy. Depending on the flow of the game, she was in position to attack on her own, lead an attack and set up a teammate or facilitate transition from defense to offense with control or passing in the midfield.
“I had a lot more space to work in and freedom to move,” said Troche, who’s been playing soccer since “5 or 6” and competively since 11. “I think it was easier for me to do what would help us.”
Thomas, who admits to being a defensive-first coach, had his team in a traditional 4-4-2 alignment to maximize net protection. The triangle didn’t totally abandon defense for offense, but it did make it easier for the Bobcats to present another attacker to an opponent without sacrificing the back end.
In fact, nine of the team’s wins the remainder of the regular season were by shutout.
The coach said he “tweaked” the alignment from time to time during the year, often depending on the opponent. But there was no denying the initial change was the catalyst for the season.
It proved to be a rallying point for the players.
“Just giving us the chance to have that input was inspiring,” said Troche, who’s verbally committed to play collegiately at St. Leo. “It made us closer as a team. Then, when we made adjustments, everyone had to be involved with it so it would continue to work and that made a difference in us staying together.”
Troche’s season had a dream beginning against rival Port Charlotte in the opener. She scored a goal in the first 90 seconds and another later in the 4-0 victory.
“I was so pumped for that game,” she said. “It was a perfect way to start the season.”
The lull that led to the alignment change followed before the Bobcats sprinted home to the regular-season district title, capped by a 1-0 win against rival Venice. The victory avenged the lone loss in the district season.
North Port dispatched Charlotte in the district semifinals, but fell to Braden River in the championship match. The Bobcats fell behind 2-0 early, but rallied to tie the match only to fall on a “golden goal” in overtime.
“We were so close,” Troche said of the district championship. “But it was still great to make it to the final for the first time. We know what it feels like to get there and lose. Hopefully next year, we’ll get to feel what it’s like to win.”
Lemon Bay • Junior • Forward
The Manta Rays’ leading goal-scorer for the third year in a row, hitting the back of the net 15 times in 2015-16. She also spread the wealth with 16 assists.
Lemon Bay • Junior • Forward
The Robin to Rusher’s Batman, Tieu proved to be a strong utility player. She notched 13 goals and added six assists.
Charlotte • Senior • Midfielder
Booth did a little bit of everything for the Tarpons in her senior season. She played all over the field, and her unselfish play led to quality opportunities
Port Charlotte • Senior • Midfielder
A goal-scoring machine as her 25 goals accounted for roughly 50 percent of the Pirates’ tallies. Most impressively, she did it as a midfielder. Sultan didn’t have a problem passing either, handing out eight assists.
Lemon Bay • Junior • Defender
Played nearly every minute of the season. When the Manta Rays needed to settle things down, you could count on her to control the ball and take charge.
North Port • Junior • Defender
The Bobcats allowed 15 goals during the regular season, and that was in no small part to Rodgers’ defensive play. She displayed great talent whether it was on or away from the ball.
Port Charlotte • Sophomore • Defender
Played a key role in the Port Charlotte defense as a mainstay on the back line. She wasn’t afraid to step up and control the ball in the offensive zone either.
Port Charlotte • Sophomore • Goalkeeper
Ten of the Pirates’ wins this season were by a shutout from Stec. She performed well in her sophomore year while boasting a 1.12 goals against average.
Charlotte: Brooke Lowery (D), Caitlyn Lowery (F)
Imagine: Stephanie Legge (F)
Lemon Bay: Taegan Chakrin (G)
North Port: Kayla Gordon-Somers (G), Augusta Purvis (D), Lexi Egoville (F), Saravya Kamarajugadda (MF)
All-Area team capsules by Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports