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WOW’s 2016-2017 Picks: Alonso Athletes to Watch

For these Westchasers, it’s their last go-round as Alonso High School athletes.

Where did the time go?

Weren’t they just in T-ball or youth soccer? Weren’t they practicing their skills in their Westchase driveways only yesterday?

For this select group of Alonso senior athletes — our choices as players to watch for the 2017-18 school year — it’s now about seizing the moment.

“I’ve played for club teams, but if anything, playing for Alonso means more,’’ said Ravens soccer player Olivia Vasquez. “It seems more special. You’re at the school, learning for eight hours straight. Then, that night, you’re walking on the field with ‘Alonso’ across your jersey.

“You’re representing a 3,000-person school. You want to carry yourself a certain way and win for your school. To me, it feels very important and very valuable.’’

For senior Alonso runner James Sanchez, it’s a responsibility.

“When I was younger, I played (baseball) for the Vipers travel ball team,’’ Sanchez said. “It’s a very different feeling playing travel ball. When you wear the jersey of your high school, you definitely feel like you’re representing the school as a whole and there’s a lot of school pride involved.

“I consider it an honor to run for Alonso. I have great respect for my varsity letter. It’s a cool thing and an opportunity that isn’t given to everyone. I think I’m always going to look back on it and smile.’’

Here’s a closer look at the Alonso athletes to watch for 2017-18.

MADISON COUTTS

Coutts, a resident of The Enclave until recently moving, has always been a catcher for the softball Ravens.

But she has a more specific word that defines the value of her position: leader.

“I have a big mouth behind the plate and I like to be in the middle of everything,’’ said Coutts, a senior who batted .274 with 12 RBIs last season. “You see the whole field and you have to be a leader. That’s why I like catching so much.

“It’s a tough position. You get beat up pretty much every game. But you are involved and have an influence. I try to stay positive and be a positive influence on everyone, especially the younger players who want to learn.’’

Coutts played some outfield and third base while beginning her softball career at Keystone Little League, but soon found herself naturally drawn to catcher. She’s hoping it will lead to a spot in college softball. Right now, Coutts is studying all options and keeping an open mind.

She doesn’t want to look too far ahead. Her first priority is maximizing the potential of her Alonso team, something that didn’t happen last season.

The Ravens, coming off a storybook run to the Class 9A state championship game in 2016, were up-and-down all season, finishing 13-9 and getting eliminated in the district tournament.
 
“It was such a great time (in 2016) and those are great memories,’’ Coutts said. “We didn’t gel the same way last season. I’m sure most people thought we’d get back to states again, so it was disappointing we didn’t do better.

“We need to play better as a team, instead of being scattered. I’m going to do everything I can from my standpoint to be a good teammate and help us in the right direction. We have the talent and experience to do it again. Now it’s just a matter of doing it.’’

NICK GONZALEZ

Gonzalez, a Woodbay resident, made a big splash in his first season with Alonso’s baseball team. He batted .356 (second only to the .451 average of senior star Jordan Butler) and had 11 RBIs. He had a home run in the region semifinals against Vero Beach.

Gonzalez chose to work out with his personal coach, Jose Ortega, and play travel ball until emerging with the Ravens last season. The transition was swift. He quickly found a home at second base. Before his junior season even began, he committed to Jacksonville University.

“It’s an honor to already have a college baseball scholarship,’’ Gonzalez said. “It’s something you don’t have to worry about. You can just concentrate on your season and getting better.’’

Gonzalez began playing baseball at age 4 for Keystone Little League “at the T-ball fields way in the back, when they didn’t even have fences.’’

So much has changed.

One thing has not.

“I’ve always had a lot of heart,’’ Gonzalez said. “I’m the type of person who doesn’t give up. It’s all about effort. Nothing is given. Everything is earned.

“Baseball has always been my all-time favorite sport. I love everything about it, hitting the ball far, making the plays, getting dirty. I never get tired of it. Never.’’

The only thing that compares is fishing.

Gonzalez likes to sample the local lakes. Sometimes, he and his father take their boat offshore and spend time on the water. He owns about 25 fishing rods.

The best day? Probably when Gonzalez was much smaller, during a trip to the Keys. They hauled in a 70-pound mahi-mahi dolphin, larger than Gonzalez at the time.

Gonzalez takes a competitive approach to fishing, which he describes as a “serious hobby.’’ But really, it’s a way to pass time away from the baseball field, where he feels the most at home.

“I want to get bigger and stronger and faster and better,’’ Gonzalez said.

KATIE MORELLO

For some people, paradise is relaxing on the beach.

Morello, a resident of The Fords, is not one of those people.

“I need to stay busy,’’ she said. “I can’t imagine myself doing nothing. I’m happiest when I’m busy.’’

That’s why Morello, on track to become Alonso’s valedictorian in 2018, plays volleyball, flag football … and also serves as one of the marching band’s three drum majors.

“It’s a little bit unusual,’’ said Morello, who plays flute. “It changes the conversation a little bit. You don’t see a lot of drum majors who play two varsity sports.

“I enjoy them all. I compete at all of them, just like I compete academically as well. When you enjoy things, when it’s not a chore, it’s great to be busy with things you love. I want to be the best I can be.’’

Morello has played volleyball most of her life. She always enjoyed football, especially while growing up with three brothers, but Alonso’s offering of flag football has been a bonus. She has developed into one of the most valuable Ravens, playing running back and cornerback, while serving as a three-time captain.

Those leadership skills helped her as a drum major.

“Band is a totally different dynamic,’’ Morello said. “There are a lot more people and the personalities are different. But in both cases, it’s learning how to lead a group of people. It’s always a learning experience and I think it will help me later in life.’’

Morello, considering a major in chemical engineering, isn’t yet certain of her path, but Duke, Princeton and the University of Florida are high on her wish list.

She has been a straight-A student her whole life.

“I compete with myself,’’ Morello said. “When I was younger, it came pretty naturally. It’s definitely important to me (to not get a B).

“I think whether it’s learning, being in the band or playing a varsity sport, it’s pure enjoyment for me. I like the diversity of it all, being able to do a lot of different things. That’s probably my proudest accomplishment.’’

JAMES SANCHEZ

He’s always on the run.

That’s probably a good way to describe the life of Sanchez, a resident of The Fords, who’s a versatile performer in cross country and track and field.

Additionally, Sanchez is an established leader, serving as National Honor Society president and senior class officer, while working with the Future Business Leaders of the America (FBLA) and the DECA Club. And that’s all while maintaining a straight-A average at Alonso.

Sanchez described running as “a great stress reliever, a good activity for exercise and staying in shape.’’

At the same time, he said he has a “love-hate relationship’’ with running.

“At the times when I’m really in the mood to go for a run, it feels great,’’ Sanchez said. “There are other times when it’s really tough and you don’t feel the best, but ultimately I’m glad I did it. But as far as being one of those people who roll out of bed and run 10 miles every day, no, that’s not me.’’

Sanchez’s involvement in cross country, a 5-kilometer competition in the fall, is a bit of a paradox. He began as a sprinter. In more recent years, he has specialized in relays, along with the 400 and 800 meters.

“The 400 is a straight-out sprint,’’ Sanchez said. “In the 800, you go as fast as you can for the first 400, then the second 400 is holding on for dear life, giving every ounce of energy you have left.’’

Sanchez participates in cross country for training, although he is driven to improve his times as much as possible while knowing that distance running isn’t his best event.

When he’s not running, Sanchez is a “fixer.’’ From an early age, mostly with LEGOs, he has loved to build things and discover how they work. When something breaks around the house, he’s the family’s go-to guy. So it figures that he’s interested in an engineering major, whether it’s at the University of Florida or a handful of other schools on his list.

JACK SPLAINE

Splaine has been exposed to golf for as long as he can remember. He has grown up living in The Greens, adjacent to the par-3 No. 7 hole at the Westchase Golf Club.

He has always liked to head over for some late-day practice at chipping or putting. In recent years, when he has taken the sport more seriously, he has worked on his craft more diligently at Westchase or Silver Dollar, the home course of Alonso’s golf team.

“It’s kind of cliché, but golf is definitely a sport that you can play throughout your life,’’ Splaine said. “It’s fun. You can play it with friends. It’s very social. It can be a good business tool.

“At the same time, there’s a lot of skill behind it. It takes time to master. It’s very satisfying when you play well, but it can be a very frustrating sport at times.’’

Splaine began playing varsity golf at Robinson High School in 2014, when he entered the International Baccalaureate program. Splaine left IB last season and transferred to Alonso, where he generally played golf in the second or third spot in the Ravens’ lineup.

Splaine said he relishes being a mentor for Alonso’s younger players. Individually, he prides himself on being consistent and accurate.

That approach translates to his academics, where he carries a 5.6 GPA. He hopes to major in business technology, perhaps at the University of Florida or Florida State.

OLIVIA VASQUEZ

Vasquez, a resident of The Fords and goalkeeper for Alonso’s girls soccer team, said she fits the stereotypes of her position.

“People think goalies are different,’’ Vasquez said. “They are. I am. Mostly, I just like to have a little fun.’’

Vasquez, a live-wire personality, said she loves the responsibility of “saving a shot that could determine the game.’’ At the same time, she’s respectful of the skills needed by every goalkeeper.

An iron will.

A fearless attitude.

And a short memory.

“You have to be ready for anything,’’ said Vasquez, who has five shutouts during Alonso’s 8-6-1 season. “Basically, you’re taking 60 mile-an-hour shots at your face. You can’t run away from it. You have to stand in there.

“I have gotten the wind knocked out of me so many times. I’ve cut my head on the goalpost. My knee got kicked so many times, it puffed up like a watermelon. It’s all part of playing goalie. It’s different, so you see a lot of different kind of personalities.’’

Vasquez, whose parents are Colombian and Irish, said she has played soccer “almost as soon as I came out of the womb.’’

At first, she was a defender. But when given an opportunity to play goalkeeper, Vasquez immediately felt at home.

“You just have the mindset that you’re like a wall back there, that nothing gets past you,’’ Vasquez said. “You feel like you’re ‘The Terminator’ on the field. I like being that person. There’s pressure, sure, but there’s no better feeling when you come through.’’

Vasquez, the incoming president of Alonso’s DECA club, said she was photographed as a little girl wearing a Florida State cheerleading outfit. Ever since, she has dreamed of attending FSU and that’s still her goal.

“But wherever you go to college, I’ve learned that it’s what you make of it,’’ Vasquez said. “I think being an athlete will help me later in life. I’ve learned how to work hard and set goals.

“I’m going to keep working hard and let everything in my life play out, just like a 90-minute game on the field. My goal is to cry at the end of my last senior game, knowing that I gave it everything I had and I love my team.’’

By Joey Johnston; Photos by James Broome Photography

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