LAND O’ LAKES — Mark Pearson and Vicky King. Without either one on the sidelines year after year, soccer at Land O’ Lakes High — scratch that, all of Pasco County — would be vastly different.
“I don’t know if there’s a better soccer coach (than Pearson),” said Gators boys soccer alum J.P. Rodrigues, who played professionally, including with the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
“I think any of her players would say that (King is) more than a soccer coach,” said Gators girls soccer alum Stacy Bishop, a former University of Florida All-American and women’s professional soccer player. “She’s a mentor.”
Pearson, in his 16th year as head coach, and King, in her 27th season as the founder of the girls team, have experienced plenty: state titles and runner-up finishes, a pile of district title trophies and numerous milestones.
Now, in the span of a week, King can get her 400th career win as early as Friday at River Ridge. Pearson, with a 1-0 win against Pasco on Monday night, earned his 300th victory.
Pearson is 300-83-35, while King is 398-178-52.
From across the pond
Pearson never saw this coming.
Born and raised in the small town of Worksop, England, Pearson came to the U.S. in October, 1981 and played soccer at Chamberlain High, and he also got opportunities to play overseas as one of the area’s top players. With dreams of playing professionally, and, of course, for England’s national team in the World Cup, Pearson also met his future wife, Kimberly, as the two worked at a Walgreens in Tampa.
Injuries chipped away Pearson’s speed and he found himself playing for Tom Fitzgerald at the University of Tampa in the early 1990s. Pearson became an assistant after graduating and the Spartans won the national championship in 1994, giving him a ring he still wears today.
As Pearson was finishing up his communications and English degrees at UT, he began subbing at Land O’ Lakes on the advice of parents of club players he was coaching at the time. Pearson was given a full contract and became the Gators’ JV coach in 1995. He took over varsity in 1997-98, going 12-10-2.
The next season, Pearson guided the Gators to the Class 5A state runner-up finish. Since then, Pearson has led the Gators to the playoffs every year except 2003 and 2013. Land O’ Lakes also finished as a state runner-up in 2012.
“You have to learn to adapt to the times,” said Pearson, 41. “I like to think of myself of that old-school mentality, but this last decade, I’m not the same screaming guy as I used to be. I’ve mellowed, and former players even notice it. You have to adapt every season.”
Pearson has two children: 13-year-old son Christian and 10-year-old daughter Lauren. He’s been their soccer coach and father through seasons that, he admits, have been tough due to long hours at games and practices. Pearson speaks of about slowing down for a change of pace as his kids get older, but, for now, he remains committed to the Gators.
“I often tell players I don’t do this to win championships,” Pearson said. “I’ve won championships as a player and coach, but I do this to give the best possible environment for a player. Whether they lift a trophy for conference, district, regional or a state title at the end of the season, then I get a great satisfaction to see them achieve something they didn’t think they could or something they worked hard to get. That’s what I take from coaching.”
Believe it or not, King never played soccer.
Always athletic and around sports in Philadelphia, King, 59, grew up playing just about every sport except soccer. She attended the University of Florida to become an athletic trainer.
King’s first job was in sports medicine and she was eventually lured into teaching by suggestion, too. Joining Land O’ Lakes’ staff as a physical education teacher on Nov. 11, 1986, it wasn’t until a year later, with the prodding of the Schmidt family who had soccer-playing offspring, she went to the school board to get Land O’ Lakes a girls soccer team.
“We didn’t get approved until a month before the season started, had no funds and no JV,” King said. “There were 32 girls on the team.”
That 1987-88 season, the Gators went 7-4, but then went 6-10-1 the next year for King’s lone losing season.
King has coached players such as Bishop, who holds the Pasco County record for career goals (194), and also has the only girls soccer state title in county history, not to mention nine district titles.
On March 1, 2003, behind Bishop, the 2A state player of the year with 55 goals that season, Land O’ Lakes beat Riviera Beach Suncoast 1-0 in the state championship game at the Ed Radice Complex, which is just a short trip from the high school.
“What I remember about that is how the community came together to see us and to root for us,” King said. “We had never been to the region final before and everything has to be perfect to win a state title. We were able to do so with our players and the community behind us.”
King has the option to join the school district’s DROP in a few years, but she hasn’t even looked into that paperwork, so she’s planning to coach as long as she’s physically able.
Now, 10 years after winning their first state title, the Gators look to grab their third straight district title. King admits, humbly, that many don’t know Land O’ Lakes owns a soccer state title.
“There’s the banner in the gym, that I know they see,” King said. “And my (state title) ring that I wear, a lot of the younger players ask if that’s my class ring. It’s not something we broadcast, but when you see the banner, it does make you proud.”