By Kyle LoJacono
University of Tampa (UT) freshman forward Cici Gonzalez knew time was running out as she returned to the field after a break late into the second half against Sunshine State Conference (SSC) rival Saint Leo University (SLU).
The Spartans (7-2, 2-0 SSC) had dominated possession throughout the road contest Sept. 19, but had nothing to show for it through the first 89 minutes.
“I was just thinking we’ve got to get something,” said Gonzalez, a Steinbrenner High graduate. “The whole game I kept thinking it’s going to come, it’s going to come because we kept dominating and attacking.”
UT finally broke through with 33.4 seconds remaining.
Midfielder Laruen Moore took the ball up the left sideline and found forward Amber Pennybaker in the corner on a through ball. Pennybaker beat the SLU (2-5-1, 1-2-1 SSC) defender and fired a cross into the box that was hit home by Gonzalez to give her squad a 1-0 win.
“I know Amber is really fast,” Gonzalez said. “She’s really good at getting around people, so I thought she’d turn that corner. As soon as I saw her getting in front of the girl, I ran as fast as I could because I knew the pass was coming. I didn’t even see it go in. I just threw myself at it.”
Moore, a Gaither High graduate, said the game was one of the most frustrating of the season. Her squad outshot the Lions 19-4 and practically lived on the Lions’ side of the field.
“We try to keep fighting through that,” Moore said. “It’s what we work on a lot in practice is the fight. If you win all the 50/50 balls it’s going to come. After all that work, we know it’s going to happen. We just kept saying, ‘We’re going to win this game. We have to.’”
Moore, a sophomore, said she had a good feeling as she saw the game-winning play developing.
“I saw Amber making the run, and I thought if I play that ball and she makes that cross it was over,” Moore said. “We’ve scored on so many crosses before. In my head I just thought one more time. I looked at the clock, saw about a minute left, played the ball, she crossed it in and Cici made a great run to put it in. … The whole game was so frustrating. To end on that was just perfect.”
Pennybaker, a sophomore, said she was happy she could redeem herself after what she called a “bad” first half.
“When I was stepping on the field to sub in the game, I was thinking I didn’t have a really effective first half and I wanted to change in the second half,” Pennybaker said. She added, “Moore gave me a good ball, and I couldn’t waste it. I heard (Gonzalez) call my name, and saw her out of the corner of my eyes. I pulled it away from the keeper so she could have a chance to finish.”
UT coach Gerry Lucey said their game plan was executed on all levels up until it came to putting away goals.
“Sometimes we’d shoot the ball too early, not get the right angle or not make the right runs in front of the net to connect with somebody,” Lucey said.
Lucey was happy about the nature of the winning play.
“We work on a lot of things in practice, pattern things like that, so it’s nice to see some good soccer win it at the end, instead of just a lucky goal,” Lucey said. “It worked in terms of finding the right player, cutting in and Cici made a fantastic run. She showed great commitment to get inside the box and finish that off.”
SLU coach Ged O’Connor said he liked the fight out of his young squad that started seven freshmen.
“It’s the experience factor,” O’Connor said. “Unfortunatly we don’t have a lot of seniors who can go in and dominate. They’re learning on the job. We held on as long as we could. We knew we were playing a quality team in UT. It’s always a battle when we play them.”
Saint Leo continues SSC play at home against Eckerd University Sept. 26 starting at 5 p.m. UT plays at conference rival Lynn University Sept. 26 starting at 1 p.m.