It took a while, but the Land O' Lakes boys tennis team finally found a coach.
After Sean McGee resigned to take another job, Gators athletic director Karen Coss was in search for a coach, but, even after a few matches had been played, found former Land O' Lakes soccer star Shannon Aitken, who teaches at Pine View Middle School.
"They asked if I'd be interested and I said I would if they needed one," Aitken said. "I'm stepping in after a few matches, which is a little difficult to get going when you're behind, so they're teaching me a lot, too."
Aitken should be a quick study. The 2007 NSCAA National Player of the Year for NCAA Division II soccer helped guide the University of Tampa women's soccer team to the 2007 Division II national title as a goalkeeper. Aitken, UT's soccer athlete of the year in 2007-08, registered a school-record 14 shutouts in her senior season to finish with 40 for her career, also a school record. Aitken's 59 career wins are also a UT record.
Considering that pedigree, one would hope her success rubs off on the tennis players.
The defending district champion Gators are off to a good start, beating district rival Wesley Chapel 4-3 on Feb. 18, getting the winning point from the No. 5 player. The Gators should be one of three teams eyeing the Class 2A-District 6 title, as well as the Wildcats and Sunlake.
"They work hard and they are pretty athletically gifted, from what I see," Aitken said of her team. "They beat Wesley Chapel, but that was a tough match for us. They have a lot of potential to go far, and I knew this coming in. It helps taking over a team this good."
CLEAR PATH: When Zephyrhills girls coach Lorraine Hinkle looks over her team's schedule, she likes what she sees. Her 3-1 Bulldogs, their only loss coming to River Ridge, have a clear path to the 2A-District 6 final, especially with teams like Wiregrass Ranch back in 3A-District 5.
"My only real worry is Gulf," Hinkle said at Tuesday's match against Sunlake.
Gulf coach Steve Donaldson and the Buccaneers return their top players, including adding a freshman he inserted into his top five spots. The Bucs lost just two seniors from a team that was third in the district last season at 10-2, so Hinkle expects to see Gulf at the district final.
However, the Bulldogs return their No. 1 player, sophomore Sarah Vandeberg, who is ranked 140th in the state.
"She's not one that goes around bragging about her wins," Hinkle said. "Her work ethic is what makes her better than others."
HOMEFIELD ADVANTAGE: With the River Ridge girls the defending district champs of their old district alignment, Coach Doug Howery is content to host the 3A-District 5 tournament in April.
"At least we don't have to travel up to Citrus," Howery joked, referring to district rivals in Citrus County.
The Royal Knights, whose toughest competition looks to be Wiregrass Ranch, boast 10 tennis courts, more than any school in the county.
"Sure, we call it homefield advantage," Howery added, "and it may be extra work (for the team), but it's worth it to not have to drive to district."
As for the River Ridge boys, they're off to a 3-0 start. They've defeated Zephyrhills, Hudson and Wesley Chapel and only lost three player matches. Individually, Sean Perry is 2-1, Peter Nicholas is 2-1, Brian Mills is 3-0, Nick Hill is 2-1 and Chris Christoff is 3-0. Perry/Nicholas and Mills/Hill are a combined 5-0 in doubles matches.