By Kyle LoJacono
The 2010-11 Steinbrenner boys soccer team looked like a lock to win its first district championship followed by a long playoff — through the first nine weeks of the season.
Then it happened, days before the Class 4A-District 8 tournament.
An internal investigation found that then junior midfielder Ryan Kennedy was living outside of the Warriors’ school boundary. Steinbrenner’s final report stated that he was using falsified information to gain admittance to the school.
The Warriors were found to have had no knowledge of the violations and were cleared of any major penalties, but the program had to forfeit nine wins and two ties, which dropped them from the top seed in the district tournament to the bottom spot.
Steinbrenner beat Sickles in the district quarterfinals, but fell in the semifinals to end the year 3-14.
To make matters worse, the Warriors lost on their home field to rival Gaither 4-2 in that semifinal. Steinbrenner could only watch as the Cowboys made it to consecutive state final fours.
“It was such a weird ending,” said Chad Ebright, the only coach in the program’s four-year history. “We were riding so high, and then we had the eligibility issue, we dropped in the district tournament and it was over before we knew what happened.”
It was the first time in program history that Steinbrenner had failed to make the postseason. The returning players say they are fueled by the way their season ended.
“We definitely are ready to make up for that,” said senior midfielder Enrique Barboto. “It’s not like it’s something we talk about all the time, but that feeling is there. We want to get back to the playoffs and show that we’re the kind of team that can make states.”
Junior goalkeeper Christian Knight added, “We want to erase last season. It was a bad ending, and we want to make it better this year.”
Barboto said they also have the goal of winning the first district championship in program history.
“Districts has never been our thing,” Barboto said. “We’ve never done well in it. … I think we’ve just always peaked too early and then have a tough time in districts. We definitely want to win districts for the first time.”
Ebright echoed Barboto’s sentiments, adding that the way to stay focused is to take the season in small steps.
“The first goal is to get the No. 1 seed in the district tournament, and we’ve only had that once,” Ebright said. “Second goal is to win districts. After that it’s just see how far we can take this.”
The mentality has worked so far for the 5-0 Steinbrenner squad, which is also 2-0 in district play. Despite the perfect start, Ebright said they have much to work on if they are going to accomplish their goals this year.
“Sometimes we just get lazy,” Ebright said. “We need to keep giving it everything we have in every game so we don’t slip up and lose and have it affect our seeding in the district tournament. We only play our district once each, so you can’t afford to lose any of those games or tie because that could be the difference between playing in the first round or getting a bye.”
There are six teams in 4A-8, meaning the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds receive byes to the district semifinals. The top squads only have to win one game to earn a postseason berth, while the bottom four must win their first two contests to advance.
The Warriors got a taste of such a near upset this season against district rival Freedom at home Nov. 14. The Patriots scored early to take a 1-0 lead before Steinbrenner stormed back with six unanswered goals for a 6-1 victory.
Junior defender Joshua Rodriquez said that was a good lesson.
“Coach tells us all the time it’s not about the technique with us; it’s all about effort,” Rodriguez said. “That’s what it was against Freedom. They were just working harder than us, and they scored first. We just have to stay focused, especially against district teams.”
Knight said they sometimes fall into that trap because they are so comfortable playing together. Almost every member of the squad also plays together at Tampa Bay United, a high-level club program.
“But that also is a really big benefit because we know how each other thinks and what we’re going to do on the field,” Knight said. “When we start not focusing we can see it pretty quickly, and we know how to snap each other out of it.”
Knight thinks that chemistry will help the Warriors in their quest for a long playoff run.
The 4A-8 tournament is at Gaither Jan. 23 to 26, with the final on Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. Steinbrenner hosts Robinson Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. before traveling to Gaither Dec. 4 at 8 p.m.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker