The Fort Walton Beach High School girls soccer team is embarking on a journey this week to the Class 5A state soccer tournament.
- The young but mighty Vikings (11-9-1) clinched the District 1-5A title on Jan. 30 by defeating rival Choctaw High 3-1. They now face the No. 4-ranked Lecanto Panthers (16-2-1) on Tuesday in the regional quarterfinals.
It’s the latest milestone for second-year head coach Manny Paravalos’ program. Just a season ago, the Vikings came within one goal of a district crown before losing to Arnold High 2-1.
This year’s breakthrough to the state playoffs comes after sticking to their attacking principles and seeing the benefits of roster continuity, Paravalos said.
“We have quality players from our starting 11 down to our rotations,” he said, crediting his deep bench. “This year we also picked up two key players as well. We picked up a striker and an attacking mid, which really changed the dynamic of the game for us.”
The newcomers have enabled a more aggressive, offensive tactic.
- “It allowed us to play a more aggressive, attacking style of play that opened up more goal scoring opportunities for us and just allowed us to go forward and move away from that defensive style of play and move to a more attacking minded approach,” Paravalos said.
Playmaker Keelie Kleppinger, a sophomore center back, said bonding with teammates and learning different roles also paved the way to playoffs.
“It was the ability of players to be able to move around,” she said. “The ability to realize each other’s potentials and understand each other has really helped throughout the season. We had this bond that allowed us to get as far as we did so far.”
Last week, Paravalos was named the Florida Athletic Coaches Association 5A District 1 Coach of the Year. Kleppinger earned 5A District 1 Player of the Year honors.
Paravalos deflected praise to his assistant coaches and parents but said the personal recognition pushes him to set the bar higher for the young program.
- “It’s another milestone. It’s not at all where I want to stop or set my goals,” he said, eyeing eventual state title contention. “I try to make sure I keep a level head because what I see for the future of this team is a lot larger than I think they can see at this point in time.”
For Kleppinger, the award was an honor as a defender getting recognized ahead of forwards and midfielders.
“It’s been an honor to actually have this award because I know there’s been a lot of great players that have come through. Being a defender and achieving this award is something great for me because usually people always look at forwards and look for the people that stand out the most,” she said.
A win Tuesday would move Fort Walton Beach into Friday’s regional semifinals against likely top seed Lincoln High of Tallahassee. From there, the Vikings could clinch the regional banner on Feb. 21 and a trip to the state tournament later this month.
“This team is capable of going beyond regionals,” Paravalos said. “If we don’t accomplish it this year, then definitely next year we’re gonna shoot for a larger milestone.”
After ending a district title drought in recent history, Paravalos has transformed the girls soccer narrative to one of possibility and promise. For Fort Walton Beach High School Athletic Director Holly McDaniel, its the standard set by Coach Manny that has gotten them here.
- “I think what Coach Manny has been able to do is establish a standard, and it began last year,” said Athletic Director Holly McDaniel. “Sometimes you have to take some lumps and get through some tough times, like last year. When you’re able to do that and you get a group of kids to buy in and commit to it where everybody’s held accountable, this is what ends up happening.”
As for the two Vikings being named Coach and Player of the Year, McDaniel said it is more than simply looking at talent. She said that district coaches look at the character of the program, along with how players and coaches act on and off the field, when determining who will receive the honor.
“I think what it represents more than anything is that what we put on the field is quality. There’s a lot of things that go into Coach and Player of the Year, it’s not just on talent,” she added. “It’s also how you represent the program, sportsmanship and people have to respect you in order to vote for you. What Coach Manny has been able to do and how he interacts with other head soccer coaches speaks volumes.”