By Kyle LoJacono
The Steinbrenner girls soccer team showed it is still the team to beat in the area with a 4-0 victory at Gaither on Dec. 6.
The win keeps the Warriors (7-3-1) undefeated in Class 4A-District 8 play, putting them in position to finish as the No. 1 or 2 seed entering the district tournament at Freedom starting Jan. 17.
“What really matters is what happens in late January and February, so you don’t want to peak too early,” said Steinbrenner first-year coach Robert Woodard. “You want to build up. We’re pretty much where we need to be right now.”
The Warriors are the defending 4A state champions, but the Cowboys (5-4-1) are also coming off a deep playoff run that saw them reach the 5A regional finals.
“They’re a very good team,” said Gaither coach Trevor Scott. “I mean they won states last year. It’s tough playing a team like that and we came out flat. They were able to control the ball because we were flat. … That’s OK because we know we’ll see them again, and we’ll get them in districts. Our players need to use this feeling to get ready for when we play them again.”
The Warriors controlled play for the majority of the contest, forcing the Cowboys to give up the ball seemingly as soon as they got possession.
“We’ve been working on our formations the last couple weeks,” said Steinbrenner sophomore midfielder Danielle Eule. “We want to be in the right place to stop them and turn it up and attack.”
The ball control negated Gaither’s strength of setting up its speedy forwards for breakout chances.
“The key to it is playing in their half of the field,” Woodard said. “If someone gets the ball at midfield and carries it all the way down with all the bumps in the field and people screaming and gets past Stephanie (Hirsch) too, then God bless them.”
Hirsch, a junior goalkeeper, made six saves to preserve the shutout.
Gaither’s best chance to score came 11 minutes into the second half. The Cowboys got back-to-back corner kicks, but were unable to capitalize.
The Warriors opened up the scoring on their first corner kick opportunity, which came in the fifth minute. Freshman midfielder Jessica Taylor took the kick, which was buried home by Eule.
Senior forward Cici Gonzalez added to the lead in the 25th minute off a throw-in by senior forward Taylor Valley. Gonzalez slipped past a Gaither defender to set up a clear shot at the net to score her team-leading fifth goal of the year.
Cowboys sophomore goalkeeper Amanda High stopped the bleeding, making four saves in the first and another five in the second, but injured her right hip making a save 24 minutes after halftime forcing her from the contest.
“Amanda kept us in it until she got hurt,” Scott said. “She’s given everything in every game. She just goes, goes and goes. She never wants to come out.”
Steinbrenner wasted little time taking advantage of new Gaither keeper Kelsey Ristad. Taylor found the back of the net off an assist from junior midfielder Marley Opila less than a minute after Ristad entered the game. The Warriors scored again about a minute later on an own goal credited to Valley.
“We’re trying to get our offense in different ways because I don’t want someone to gimmick us at the end of the season,” Woodard said. “I don’t want someone to come up with a gimmick defense to stop us. If I build everything around Cici and they come up with a way to stop her and we don’t have anything else, I really don’t like that idea. I want to be able to build something where everyone adds to the action.”
Eule said that flexibility on offense and a new emphasis on controlling the pace of play have her excited about the team’s chances at defending its state title.
“I think we’re a better team this year,” Eule said. “We’re playing really well together and improving every day.”
Steinbrenner plays Bloomingdale on Friday, Dec. 16 at 3 p.m. in the first round of the Sarasota Holiday Tournament. Gaither hosts Wiregrass Ranch in another 4A-8 contest on Tuesday, Dec. 13 at 6 p.m.