Vanguard girls basketball and soccer win district titles on same day

Vanguard girls’ soccer and basketball teams broke district title droughts on Thursday night. The Knights had not won a girls district soccer title since 2020 and the last girls basketball district crown came in 2019.

Shutting out Lecanto 2-0 on the road, Vanguard's girls soccer team (16-3-1) became the only Marion County boys or girls soccer team to win its district.

“They lost in the championship game last year, so this one is pretty special,” Vanguard soccer coach Jay Fratello said.

Vanguard girls’ basketball became the first of three Marion County teams to challenge for a district title. Even with Tavares posting a comeback, the Knights (8-14) buckled down to win, 35-29, and add to their district championship banners.

“It was already written in the cards. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Vanguard girls’ basketball coach Terrance Lewis said.

With the district trophy in hand, both Vanguard teams will look ahead to their regional quarterfinal matchups. While they prepare for their next opponents, let’s look at four storylines that circled their district title runs.

Quieting the naysayers

In the last 10 years, Vanguard girls’ basketball has finished the season with a losing record three times. It’s happened twice in the previous four seasons.

After a rocky start to the 2022-23 season, there were murmurs that Vanguard may have lost its way. Lewis told his players the same message all season: stay the course.

“These kids stayed with it. Five in a row, six in a row, seven losses in a row, and they’re in practice the next day because I stayed on them,” Lewis said. “Our ultimate goal is districts, don’t worry about the regular season, and they stayed true to that.”

This is Lewis’ first district title. He’s finished as a runner-up twice in his four years as head coach.

Three of Vanguard's players are seniors. This win set a standard for the seven returners to next season’s team.

Seniors relive success with underclassmen’s help

Since their last district title, the Vanguard girls’ soccer team has had a complete cycle of new players. Five of the team's eight seniors were on the last team to win district honors in 2019-20.

Thursday night, team captain Kaylee McCord went out the same way she started her varsity career - as a champion. She scored one of Vanguard’s two goals.

Underclassmen paid a big role in the team’s success as well. The second goal came from freshman Ruby Scott. Sophomore Brooklyn Fratello slowed down Florida’s fourth most potent goal-scorer, Mallory Mushlit. Junior Gianna Meccia protected the net with five saves.

“We put a real effort into shutting (Mushlit) down. I give credit to Brooklyn Fratello for playing outstanding defense on her the entire game,” Coach Fratello said.

Adversity makes it so much sweeter

Vanguard girls’ soccer and basketball teams were no strangers to overcoming obstacles this year. It’s a long season, and it only gets more challenging the farther you go.

The soccer team was without McCord for six weeks as she battled a knee injury. Vanguard suffered its first loss of the season and a tie in her absence.

“It was really a struggle to have your leader gone from the team for a while, but she came back and has given us a real spark," Fratello said. "We’re at the end of the season, and we have injuries and some sickness, but we’re starting to pull something together and get on a roll.”

Marleigh Martinez, the team’s leader in goals, tore her ACL a few games before McCord returned to the pitch.

“All season long, we asked the players to believe in each other and be willing to work to help one another be successful. Tonight was a great example of that,” Fratello said. “There were people that sacrificed all over the place, players that had not been feeling well gave extra effort, and it was really a good team win.”

Gunsby makes a stand for basketball team

The basketball team’s adversity looked a little different. It’s one of Vanguard’s youngest teams in recent history. The injury bug visited the Knights a few times, but nothing as severe as what soccer suffered until the district tournament.

Senior point guard and team captain Jyla Gunsby turned her ankle in a game and was hampered during the district title run. With no time for treatment between games, she played through the pain and displayed leadership under pressure. It changed how she played the game, but didn’t stop her from impacting its most significant moments.

When Tavares closed the Knights' 13-point lead in the second half, Gunsby helped to right the ship. Whenever there was a huddle, she assured her team that tonight was their night to win.

“Jyla was in the same position last year with an opportunity to win a district championship, and we lost by 1," Lewis said. "Her whole motivation coming into this year was she was not about to revisit what happened last year.”

This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: Vanguard Knights capture district titles in girls basketball and soccer