ENGLEWOOD — On the night of the Great and Terrible Key West Palmetto Bug Attack, several members of the Lemon Bay girls’ soccer team were swept up in the gaping, toothy maw of a house-sized flying cockroach never to be heard from again.
No, the tall tales surrounding the “Palmetto Bug Incident” from a few years ago haven’t reached that level of embellishment. But as the Mantas prepare for their trip to Key West High this weekend, where they will spend two nights on campus in the very 30-bed bunk room where the “PBI” occurred, the tale will be told with flourish.
“The palmetto bug is now three-feet long and had teeth,” Lemon Bay assistant coach Jason Cook said with a grin.
Mantas head coach Katie Cooke and Jason, her husband, grew up on the island and played soccer for the Conchs, where Katie’s coach remains at the helm. That bond has led to a longstanding arrangement between the two schools to play whenever possible.
Key West made the trip to Englewood in November for a Saturday morning match that went the Mantas’ way, 4-1. This Saturday, the Mantas and Conchs will meet again on island time.
“It’s a nice little getaway for the girls, good for them to be together,” Katie Cooke said. “Key West is unique because they have that bunk room, which is neat since they’re not going to be separated in hotel rooms. They’re all together and they have to annoy each other and survive.
“It’s a nice team-bonding experience going into districts, which is why we planned it this way,” she added. “We want a cohesive unit going into the playoffs.”
Lemon Bay routinely heads to Key West in the offseason, as well, for a camp. During three-a-days, the team often hones its skills with visiting college coaches.
“We get a college coach to come down for a week-long training and it’s great team-building and skills work during the summer,” Jason Cooke said. “Our players can continue to advance as well as be seen by top college coaches that we have coming in.”
All while sleeping with one eye open for multi-legged fauna.
“Sometimes we get hermit crabs that visit, but yeah,” Katie Cooke said. “That night, they thought it was just a cockroach, so they went to smack it and they missed and the thing started flying.
“So screaming and running ensued, and jumping over bunk beds,” she added with a wave of her hand and a roll of her eyes. “It was quite the hysterics. It took a while to get them calmed down after that.”
Lemon Bay will load up Friday morning in Englewood and make the seven-hour drive to the island. Once there, Katie Cooke said the plan is to have some fun playing intrasquad soccer at a nearby outdoor hockey rink. Dinner will be served in a reserved back room of Shanna Key Irish Pub & Grill, a short walk off campus.
“We still have some good connections down there,” Jason Cooke said, referring to the folks at the Shanna Key. “It’s an Irish Pub and they’re all into rugby, but the back dining section, they’ll close it off for us.”
The Mantas will play the Conchs on Saturday morning. Afterward, the plan is to hit the town and get touristy. Senior Sophia Cherniak has a specific goal in mind.
“I’m excited to catch the chickens,” Cherniak said. “We’re going to try and catch a chicken.”
Senior Kylie Robbins said despite Lemon Bay’s multiple trips during her time at the school, she has always missed out due to various family vacations. The team has also not been able to play a regular season game at Key West since 2019 due to the pandemic.
“I’ve never been before, so it’s going to be a completely new experience for me,” Robbins said. “When (Key West) was here, some of them we became friends with, so we get to see them again, which is cool.”
In all, the trip is a way for the Cookes to get back to their roots while also providing an invaluable experience. Their hometown has a rare charm and diversity that molded them into who they are today.
“The diversity of people down there – my high school team my senior year had all different types, Haitians, Germans, Irish, Ukrainians,” Jason Cooke said. “Just coming together and playing as one cohesive unit was a challenge.”
The diversity comes from the island’s location, of course, but also from the Naval Air Station that occupies the eastern end of the island.
“We feel blessed to have that experience and be able to give that experience to the girls, to get to go down and play in such a unique place,” Katie Cooke said.
After catching the sunset at Mallory Square, the team will return to the bunk room for one last night before loading up for the drive home Sunday morning.
That is, if they survive the night. The existence of the beast that shall not be named is known to some, but not all. The Cookes plan on being tight-lipped.
“Oh, yeah, we’ve told them nothing,” Katie Cooke said of the PBI.
“We’re not going to tell them,” Jason Cooke said with a laugh. “But they know. Somehow, the horror stories have spread generation after generation and gotten worse.”