By Kyle LoJacono
The Tampa Bay United (TBU) U18 Girls Premier soccer team won the FYSA state championship May 20, navigating a playoff schedule that included the Nos. 1, 3 and 4 ranked teams in Florida.
TBU (25-4-6) recorded six shutouts in seven postseason games, outscoring its opponents 20-1. The lone goal against came in a 3-1 win over Coral Springs United Renegades in the President’s Cup finals in Auburndale. Tampa Bay also got past the defending champs Creeks Clash Blue 1-0 in the semifinals.
Jim Cote, who coaches the squad with Adrian Bush, said he knew the team was state championship caliber when they started practice in August.
“Our goals were to win a state title,” said Cote, who has coached in the area for 16 years. “None of the girls had ever won a President’s Cup from this team, so the goal was to win a state title and send them off to college with a state title.”
Goalkeeper Emily Ball, a senior at Freedom High, said the coaches’ confidence got them believing.
“If they hadn’t pushed us all season we wouldn’t be where we are,” Ball said.
Some of that uncertainty was because TBU is in its first year, which was created from the merging of Hillsborough County United (HCU) and RSL Florida.
“We knew RSL had a very strong team,” said Ball, who played with HCU since her sophomore year. “They’d been our rival. … When we came together we thought we’d have a strong team, but our coaches thought it before we did I think. We weren’t sure because we’ve all been in the state cup and know how challenging it is. When we started winning games, it started to sink in.”
TBU has some of the top high school players in the area, including Steinbrenner senior forward Cici Gonzalez and junior midfielder/forward Marley Opila, Carrollwood Day senior midfielder Taylor Tippett, Gaither senior defender Lexy Bubley, Bishop McLaughlin senior forward Corrie Bexley and Ball.
“Having good players doesn’t mean you’re going to win,” Cote said. “Most of these girls were the stars of their high school teams, but they came together and sacrificed individual stats to win a state title. … At the end of the day I don’t know if we were the best team, but we were the most committed team. This is my eighth state final, and this is a very special group. They earned it on the training field.”
Gonzalez said that work ethic was evident in the finals.
“It was 3-1, so it sounds like a beating but it wasn’t,” Gonzalez said. “We scored first and they scored going into halftime. It was so hot that day, and it was such a physical and aggressive game. There were chances on both sides. All season we’ve been practicing during the heat of the day, so we were confident that our fitness would pull us through. It definitely did. You could tell they were dropping off and cramping, and we kept going. We were just relentless.”
At the break midway through the second half, Cote advised his players to keep up the intensity.
“We told the girls they’re dying over there because of the heat,” Cote said. “I told them if they kept running they’d let something up.”
Tampa Bay notched the winning tally on a penalty kick taken by Caroline Bado 26 minutes into the second half. The midfielder scored again with five minutes remaining.
Defeating the Renegades for the championship was a bit of vengeance for Ball and Tippett, whose HCU U16 team lost to in the final three seasons ago.
“It sunk in the next day when I went to school and all my friends were congratulating me,” Ball said. She added, “Whenever I look at the medal hanging in my room, I can’t stop smiling. It reminds me it’s still real.”
It still hasn’t fully sunk in for Tippett, the only member of the state championship squad who has only played for HCU/TBU.
“I don’t think it has yet,” said Tippett, who started with HCU at age 8. “I don’t think it will until regionals when we’re there for the opening ceremonies.”
The championship advances TBU to the Region III tournament in Greenville, S.C. June 15 to 21. Opila said getting by stiff competition is a big boost moving forward.
“By beating those teams we showed that we are the best team in the state,” Opila said. “We didn’t get any easy group or easy run through. We got the hardest teams. I think that gives us a little confidence in regionals, and maybe it’ll intimidate the other teams in regionals because we’ve beat all those great teams.”
At regionals, TBU will compete with the champs from South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Texas and Tennessee. The winner advances to nationals July 24 to 29 in Rock Hill, S.C.
“It’s great to represent Florida,” Gonzalez said. “It’s really humbling and overwhelming at the same time because you want to do well. … We just have to go in with the mindset that we can win. It’s going to be the team that wants it most who wins, and I think we do want it.”
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