By Kyle LoJacono
The University of Tampa (UT) women’s soccer team can boast a 11-3-1 record and the No. 24 national ranking while being tied for first place of the ultra competitive Sunshine State Conference (SSC).
The Spartans have outscored opponents 49-9 this season, thanks in large part to the production of two young ladies who once fought for high school supremacy on fields in North Hillsborough County.
Sophomore midfielder Laruen Moore and freshman forward Cici Gonzalez, who graduated from Gaither and Steinbrenner, respectively, played against each other three times in high school.
Gonzalez got the better of the Cowboys during the 2008-09 season when, as a freshman, she scored three goals to help Sickles win 6-0. That contest showed Moore what her future teammate could do.
“I always knew she was a threat,” said Moore, who is studying advertising and public relations.
The matchup ended in 1-1 and 0-0 draws the next two years when Gonzalez moved to Steinbrenner once the school opened in 2009.
“I knew that she was the most skillful player for Gaither and someone who we had to watch,” said Gonzalez, a criminology major.
The two attended Martinez Middle and had mutual respect for one another; but because they were never on the same team at any level, they were like strangers in UT’s early practices. They had no idea what kind of a scoring duo they would become.
Moore and Gonzalez first picked up soccer around age 5.
For Gonzalez, it was like love at first sight.
“I actually don’t know why I liked it so much,” Gonzalez said. “When I was little I loved to run. It’s just a great game, and scoring goals is a lot of fun.”
A Halloween tournament in Largo sealed her passion.
“I remember the first time I went to a real tournament when I was 10 with my team,” Gonzalez said. “We won the finals and I scored both goals. It was a good feeling to do that. It was nice to feel important and to win.”
Moore also played point guard for Martinez’s basketball team, but the hard courts could not offer the same thing as the pitch.
“I think it really helps me clear my mind,” Moore said. “It is a release for me from school and everything. Even though it’s super hot, it’s just really fun. I just love working to get better.”
Moore joined a Gaither team that had a revolving door at coach and struggled to compete.
The Cowboys went 5-6-1 in her freshman season, but improved to 12-6-2 three years later while making the postseason for the first time since 2005 and made the regional finals for the third time in the school’s 28-year history.
The breakthrough season and a new coach helped fuel Moore’s competitiveness.
“We had two coaches my first two years, and Trevor (Scott), who was the coach the last two years, he really focused hard on us and wanted us to do well,” Moore said. “That really helped, and we went out and worked our butts off. It was really cool to have such a turnaround from my freshman year to senior year. It made me care about it more because of how much he cared about the team.”
Moore racked up a team-high 13 goals that season. She finished her high school career with 38 tallies and 19 assists.
Gonzalez was an offensive force during her three years at Steinbrenner. Her 78 goals, 63 assists and 219 points all stand as Warriors career records. Add in the 19 goals and four assists she recorded while at Sickles, and Gonzalez totaled 97 goals, 67 assists and 261 points in high school.
Gonzalez, who was a member of the Tampa Bay United (TBU) Girls Premier club that won the FYSA state championship this summer, was also part of playoff teams every year in high school, including three district titles while at Steinbrenner.
The Warriors went 54-7-6 during her time with the squad and Gonzalez was named The Laker/Lutz News Girls Soccer Player of the Year following the 2010-11 season when Steinbrenner won the Class 4A state championship on UT’s home field.
“Right after states is when I committed, so absolutely playing in the atmosphere was something I wanted to keep doing,” Gonzalez said. “I wanted to go to a school that had a chance to do big things and win a national championship.”
The state title on the Spartans’ field helped seal her decision, but Gonzalez and Moore both had strong feelings about UT before playing a high school game.
Gonzalez first saw her new home field at age 11 as part of a day camp.
“My whole team came when I was 12,” Gonzalez said. “We got to stay here overnight for four days. It was really fun, so I had great memories here. … At the beginning I thought this is where I want to go for sure.”
Moore had a similar experience around the same age.
“Every year for like five years we came, and at one camp Gerry (Lucey) had an interest in me playing here,” Moore said. “Then I started thinking about it. I never thought about playing here before then, but I’m glad I am.”
Lucey, who has been the Spartans coach for six years, is equally glad with their decisions to join the squad.
“Both of them are very technically clean and very driven individuals,” Lucey said. “They have the knack of scoring goals, so those are a few ingredients there that we thought would positively add to our program.”
Moore, who has started all 15 of UT’s games, did not disappoint in her first season. She scored nine goals, tied for the team high.
“Last year I was really nervous,” Moore said. “I just wanted to come in and do my part for the team. I wasn’t expecting to start at all. Just wanted to play well and learn what they wanted me to learn. It just ended up that I was in the right place at the right time for a lot of goals because of what (Lucey) has taught me.”
This season, Moore has a team-high 13 goals and 30 points. Lucey said Moore has increased her leadership along with her production.
“We have a young team, and she’s taken it on herself to lead by example,” Lucey said. “She knows that we’re going to rely on her to score goals, and that’s a responsibility that she can handle, but leadership has been big. Against Barry she took a (penalty kick), and she basically grabbed the ball and said this is mine, I’m taking it and I’m going to put it in the back of the net, and she did.”
Gonzalez said Moore is also great at picking up her teammates.
“She tries to build everyone’s confidence, and she’s someone you can talk to if you feel shaky about anything,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez has not wasted any time either. She has a team-high 62 shots with 11 goals and 26 points while starting all 15 of the Spartans’ games.
“She’s doing great things, and has really made a name for herself early,” Moore said. “She scored the first two goals of the season. If you just came out to this team and watched us play and didn’t know her you’d think she was older.”
Lucey added, “I won’t say that she’s been a surprise because we knew what she was capable of, but she’s definitely lived up to our expectations being out there on the field and contributing significantly as a freshman. She’s exceeded the expectations by scoring more goals than we thought out of a freshman.”
Gonzalez is only the third freshmen in program history to score double digit goals. She sits only behind Jocelyn Charette’s 21 in 2006 and Shelby Kuni’s 13 in 2005 in terms of most tallies for a UT freshman.
“I just wanted to play,” Gonzalez said. “I wanted to make an impact and make a name for myself while helping the team. … Really, I just want to win. I don’t care if I’m scoring goals as long as we win. I don’t like to lose.”
The Spartans haven’t done much losing this season and sit in prime position to win their first regular season conference title since 2007.
Moore, Gonzalez and UT have two more SSC contests this season. They host Nova Southeastern Oct. 16 at 6 p.m. before traveling to Florida Southern Oct. 20 at 5 p.m.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker