By Kyle LoJacono
The seniors on the Steinbrenner boys soccer team will never experience a district title after coming up short the last four years, but that thought doesn’t concern them.
The Warriors (20-2-3) have a much more important championship on their minds, namely the Class 4A state crown.
“Nothing would make me happier than to win a state championship before a district championship,” said Chad Ebright, the only coach in the program’s four-year history.
Steinbrenner advanced to the state championship game by winning the 4A-2 regional title Feb. 5 with a 3-1 victory at Deltona Pine Ridge and followed with a 4-3 double overtime win at home Feb. 8 against Ocala Forest.
The Warriors entered the state semifinals outscoring their opponents 16-3 in their first three playoff games, but they were in for a much tougher test against a Wildcats squad that had allowed just four goals all season.
“They’d won every one of their games in this regional tournament 1-0, and that’s the way they play,” Ebright said. “They’re very disciplined, very skilled, they’re great with the ball and if they get a lead they usually can hold onto it.”
Senior forward Jason Collister said they wanted to play a very quick game to get past Forest’s central defenders.
“We wanted to play one-two, get off the ball, move, get open, and it worked just well enough tonight,” Collister said.
The game plan worked to perfection late in the first half as Steinbrenner scored three times in a three-minute span to go into halftime ahead 3-1.
Collister had two of the first-half goals, giving him eight in postseason play, and junior forward Austin Labban added the other.
The Warriors had eight shots on goal to the Wildcats’ two in the first half, but Forest turned up the intensity after the break with goals in the 51st and 69th minutes to tie the contest.
“I don’t even think it was that much of a lapse,” Ebright said. “They just outplayed us. Forest just played better than we did in the second half. We’re out here, and there’s only great teams left playing tonight. Right now it’s down to two, but any one of those four teams could have had the win tonight.”
Neither squad could convert in the first 10-minute sudden death overtime period, a trend that continued late into the second until Derek Gebhard ended the contest.
The senior midfielder fired home the game-winner in the 97th minute off a free kick taken by Enrique Barboto from 30 yards out.
“I saw it in the air, but then it disappeared until I felt it hit my leg,” Gebhard said. “I looked down, controlled it and kicked it as hard as I could.”
Barboto said he knew he had to put the ball in a good spot to avoid penalty kicks.
“I was just hoping I’d place it somewhere where one of my guys could get a good shot at it,” Barboto said. “I went over in my head where everyone was supposed to be. Gebhard was there to kick it in, and I guess it was meant to be.”
Gebhard moved to midfield from forward late in the season and has responded with six goals in four postseason games.
“He’s played well lately,” Ebright said. “I think the move from forward to midfield has opened him up well. He’s not getting the ball with his back to the goal now. He’s usually getting it on the outside on the run forward. That helps him out, as well as us.”
Ebright said the way his squad fought back from down 1-0 and giving up a 3-1 lead shows what they are made of.
“We fight; we have heart,” Ebright said. “The last couple games were easier than this one, but that doesn’t mean that they were easy by any means. I think we were consistent. We were able to put consistent pressure on the goal, and eventually find the back of the net.”
A sizable group of Steinbrenner fans packed into the stadium, including the student cheering group known as The Gold Crew.
Barboto said the crowd was the largest he’s seen at a home game during his time in high school, and added that the Warriors didn’t want to send them home without a victory to celebrate.
“We wanted to do it for all these people who came out here supporting us,” Barboto said. “Really, the emotions were running high all day. I’m so happy we were able to get out of here with a win and to know that our season isn’t over. This was for everyone in the Warrior Nation.”
//Spark that drives the Warriors
Gebhard said the worst loss of the season was dropping a 2-1 contest to rival Sickles in the Class 4A-District 8 championship game Jan. 26.
He also said it’s where Steinbrenner has drawn much of its motivation, drive and inspiration during its run to the 4A state championship game.
“Ever since that district loss we’ve made it our goal to come out and win states and be state champs this year,” Gebhard said. “This is unbelievable, everything that’s been happening for us.”
Collister added, “We were pretty devastated that we didn’t win that game against Sickles, but we bounced back, started a winning streak and hopefully we can get one more win.”
The Warriors have used the disappointment to go two rounds farther in the playoffs than any other team in the program’s four-year history.
“I think the loss to Sickles was kind of an eye-opener to these guys,” Ebright said. “We know we’re good, but other teams don’t allow you to win just because you’re good. We have to go out there and prove it every single game. In the Sickles game, we didn’t play poorly. Sickles just played great, but it showed these boys they have to step it up every round. It doesn’t get easier.”
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
Class 4A state final
Who: Steinbrenner vs. Naples Gulf Coast
When: Saturday, Feb. 16 at 1:05 p.m.
Where: Melbourne High
Address: 74 Bulldog Blvd., Melbourne 32901
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