An island unto themselves, Indians building bridge to join Collier’s elite programs

Immokalee players retake the field following a timeout during their district semifinal win over Palmetto Ridge on April 15 at Golden Gate High School. GREGG HARDY/CSI

BY GREGG HARDY
CSI EDITOR

Competitively speaking, Collier County’s high school boys lacrosse landscape has been divided into three tiers. It’s been that way for several years.

Gulf Coast and Barron Collier reside in Tier 1 — those two perennial district champions will battle it out Friday night in the opening round of regionals.

Below the Sharks and Cougars, in Tier 2, are Community School of Naples, Immokalee and Naples. (Golden Gate, Palmetto Ridge and Lely make up the bottom tier.)

PHOTO GALLERY: View images from the Palmetto Ridge-Immokalee district semifinal

Coach Scott Rickard is doing everything he can to push the Indians into that top tier, but cost and geography have kept the Indians largely isolated from their Collier County brethren. Last week’s 22-0 loss to Gulf Coast in the District 19 title game illustrated just how far Immokalee is from that top tier.

Located in the far northeastern reaches of Collier County’s lacrosse landscape sits an island, and the Indians are its sole inhabitants.

Junior captain Juan Chavez — the Indians’ top scorer — unleashes a shot against Palmetto Ridge. GREGG HARDY/CSI

“It’s just us,” Rickard said following his team’s 9-3 district semifinal win over Palmetto Ridge on April 15.

“You’re asking a 15- (or) 16-year-old kid to drive 45 minutes into town and pay $900 for whatever club that they’re playing … they can’t afford that. A lot of them don’t have cars — or if they do, what are you going to do? Fit seven guys in one car?”

That’s why Rickard formed the Immokalee Venom, a US Lacrosse-affiliated club team that began play in 2015 and has grown to the point that it now has multiple squads. (Oftentimes, the Venom play against other club teams that boast the best of the best from area high schools, essentially an all-star team.)

Playing for the Venom gives the Immokalee High players a chance to sharpen their skills in the summer and fall months. Though Rickard encourages his guys to compete in other sports, being able to play lacrosse at least a couple days a week throughout the year has improved the Indians’ overall skill level.

“We’ve gotten a lot better with our stick skills from when I started,” said Rickard, who’s guided the Indians to four straight winning seasons — their only winning campaigns since the program was launched a decade ago. “When I started (as head coach in 2014), it was “roll the ball out and just kind of do whatever, and it wasn’t really taken seriously.”

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In addition to the Venom, Rickard said he’s trying to form an Immokalee middle school program to get local youths into the sport at an earlier age.

“We get that, we’re going to be nice,” said Rickard, who has worked to create a tight-knit bunch in Immokalee, as best illustrated by his long-sleeve shirt with the team’s mantra — FHR (family, heart, respect) — printed on the back.

Indians goalie Noel Martinez makes a stop on a Palmetto Ridge shot during the district semifinals. GREGG HARDY/CSI

While the season ended with a thud at Gulf Coast, the Indians (11-8) still have much to celebrate.

• Last week, two seniors signed to play college lacrosse: Raul Soliz Jr. at Division II Alderson Broaddus in West Virginia, and Austin Aviles at Mercyhurst North East in Pennsylvania (which is part of the National Junior College Athletic Association).

• Immokalee had a couple of record-setting performances this season: Soliz (who is fifth in career points at IHS) became the Indians’ single-season and all-time leader in face-off wins; and goalie Noel Martinez set the mark for saves in a season.

• Bryan Lara set the single-season scoring record for a freshman. His 11 goals passed Tshumbi Johnson’s mark of six. (Lara is a prime example of the Venom’s impact on IHS lacrosse — he played with the club in the summer of his seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade years.)

Although they’re losing a couple of key players in Soliz and Aviles, the Indians will return some quality talent next season. That certainly includes Lara, Martinez and Juan Chavez, who led the team in scoring this season and sits fourth on the all-time goals list.

“We’re young, we’re super young,” said Rickard, who found himself starting four freshmen and three sophomores in the district semifinals.

Follow CSI on Twitter at @239CSI or like CSI on Facebook at facebook.com/CollierSportsInsider. Email Gregg Hardy at editor@colliersportsinsider.com.