By Kyle LoJacono
Three years ago the Freedom boys soccer team got one step away from the ultimate goal of any high school program — winning a state championship.
The Patriots (6-6-1) reached the Class 5A state finals in 2009, but fell to Palm Harbor University 2-1 to finish with a 17-3-5 record. Freedom lost 10 seniors from that runner-up season, and the program has been fighting to get back to championship contention ever since.
The Patriots went 8-8-2 in 2009-10 followed by a 6-12 campaign. They missed the playoffs both seasons, ending a six-year streak that started in 2004 when the school was in its second year.
“It’s been difficult,” said Dennis Derflinger, the only coach in program history. “We have a number of good players here, so it’s not a matter of getting players on this team. It’s about getting them all buying into the same philosophy. They’re all coming from different clubs. It makes it a little difficult to one, get them to know how to play with each other and two, play with the style of play we want them too.”
That’s not to say the players haven’t had the drive to get back to the final four and beyond, especially the seniors who were freshmen on that 2008-09 squad.
“I remember our defense was really strong that year,” said senior defender Connor Limburg. “I remember from the finals game I got to play for a minute and a half because one of our guys got a yellow card. I always remember that.”
Senior forward/midfielder Evan Kruk has even better memories. He scored the winning goal in the state semis to send Freedom to the finals.
“That’s been the highlight of my time playing here,” Kruk said. “I got a through ball from Deion Jones, who was a senior, and I just onetimed it to the back post. Luckily the keeper couldn’t get his hand on it. Everything was in slow motion when I shot it, and then the crowd just erupted.”
Senior midfielder Michael Sacco said he took the deep playoff march for granted as it was his first season.
“Being a freshman then, my perspective is a lot different than where I’m at right now as a senior,” Sacco said. “It’s weird that we’re the seniors now. We have to assume the responsibility to take this team.”
Derflinger and his players had high expectations coming into this season.
“I felt we were going to be a lot better from last year,” said sophomore goalkeeper Nate Brown, who has 63 saves and three shutouts this year. “Everybody is getting older and better. We’re working better together and that aspect is going to help a lot, and our new freshmen are really good too.
“Last year it was difficult at the beginning because I broke my (right) shoulder, so throughout most of the year I was just watching,” Brown continued. “When I got back I gave it my best, so did everyone else, but we just couldn’t pull it out in districts.”
Injuries derailed Brown’s season last year and more medical problems threatened to do the same to the Patriots this year.
“We’ve had some serious injuries coming in that we weren’t expecting, so we got off to a rough start,” Derflinger said. “We were scrambling around to find people to fill those positions. I feel like we can compete and bring back another district title. We just have to play the way we’re capable of. … My assistant coach and I were talking and reflecting on the season, and there were only three games where we weren’t missing four or more starters.”
One of those games the Patriots were playing with most of their lineup was at district rival Gaither on Jan. 4.
The Cowboys (13-4-1), who reached the 5A final four last year, have eliminated Freedom from playoff contention the last two years, but that did not deter the Patriots. They defeated Gaither 1-0 to secure the No. 2 seed in the Class 4A-District 8 tournament. Kruk scored the lone goal in the contest set up by Sacco, and Brown made 10 saves to preserve the shutout.
“I think it gives us some confidence because Gaither is a quality team, and they always have a quality program over there,” Derflinger said. “To get that win it helps us out, but then again you can’t look at it too deeply because we may have to play them again in districts. We have to take it for what it’s worth and improve a little more over the next couple of weeks.”
The 4A-8 tournament is at Steinbrenner Jan. 24-27, with the championship game on Friday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. As the No. 2 seed in the six-team district Freedom earns a bye to the semifinals, meaning one victory in the tournament would clinch a playoff berth.
The Patriots travel to Robinson on Wednesday, Jan. 18 before closing out the regular season at Brandon on Thursday, Jan. 19. Both games are at 7 p.m.
–All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches