By Kyle LoJacono
The Tampa Bay United (TBU) U18 Girls Premier soccer club went 1-1-1 at the Region III tournament in Greenville, S.C., finishing the event ranked No. 4 in the southeast and No. 16 in the nation.
TBU, which won the state championship to reach regionals, had one of the toughest draws at the event, which included the Nos. 1, 6 and 7 teams in the southeast.
“Every game in that group was a one-goal game,” said Jim Cote, who coaches TBU with Adrian Bush. “It was just the group of death. We were tied for second in the group, but the team we tied was the team that we lost to, so they moved on.
“Seeing their faces; I just felt sick for them,” Cote continued. “They really should have gone through. They played well enough to go through, and I’m disappointed for them. It was hard to talk with them after the game because I know how bad they wanted it and how much work they put in to get there.”
Tampa Bay was leading deep in the second half of the third contest on June 17 thanks to a goal from midfielder Marta Wangard, but South Carolina CESA ‘93 Premier picked up two goals within 90 seconds to take the contest 2-1.
“We had the lead and had two chances at open goals,” Cote said. “Really tough because we were so close, and we’d beaten that team earlier in the year. … We were all in shock that we didn’t move on, but saying that, they played really well against really good teams.”
The first two games were nail biters for TBU.
Tampa Bay trailed 1-0 in the opening contest, which was on June 15, against the top-ranked Georgia NASA 12 Elite II. Forward Cici Gonzalez, a recent Steinbrenner High graduate and University of Tampa signee, headed home a pass from Meggie Dougherty with two minutes remaining to give TBU a 1-1 tie.
“It was a really close game; just back and forth the whole time,” Gonzalez said. “We were just pushing and pushing. Our coach told us at halftime to wait for the last 15 minutes and your fitness will pull you through. Then Meggie got the ball in the (right) corner and sent it across. I just went up for it, and when I saw it go in the back of the net, it was definitely a relief.”
Gonzalez’s late-game scoring came into play again in the second contest the following day.
With the score tied 1-1 against Georgia United FA ’94, Abbey Meckley’s cross found Gonzalez’s head inside the box, which was buried in the back of the net with six minutes left for the winning tally.
Gonzalez also scored the game’s first goal when she found space between two FA defenders and fired a shot past the goalkeeper from 18 yards out. She ended the tournament with three tallies in as many games.
“We were playing teams where most of the girls are going to Division I schools,” Gonzalez said. “To know that I could do well and score goals against those teams with goalies of that quality is a big confidence booster. I feel more confident now going into college after playing with girls like that.”
Cote said the he was most proud of how some of the area’s most talented girls soccer players came together as a team without thinking of their own stats or personal glory.
“They were a very talented group,” Cote said. “I thought we could win every game we played because of how skilled the players are. … They never worried about rankings or records. They just kept on working, and that’s what I’ll always remember about this group. They were really and truly one.”
The trip to regionals came only a year after TBU was formed when Hillsborough County United (HCU) and RSL Florida merged.
Tampa Bay’s roster consists of players from both former clubs. Gonzalez said there was uncertainty about what the team could do when the season started last summer, but that trepidation is long forgotten.
“It was really just the perfect ending to my youth career,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of these girls I’ve played against my whole life. To come together as a team the way we did after no one expected anything from us at the beginning was great. We played really well at regionals, and I think it proved that we are some of the best players in the region. It was a great experience. It taught me a lot. I think I became a lot better player, and it was great to play with such amazing teammates.”