The Strawberry Crest boys soccer team has improved its postseason push each year of its existence.
If that pattern continues, that means the Chargers will earn their first district title next week.
In just four years, the Chargers have established themselves as one of the top teams in the area. This year’s campaign has been the best yet, as they enter the regular season finale Friday at 10-1-1.
Their lone loss of the season came last week in a 2-1 defeat against Plant High School, a non-district foe. The Chargers hope to enter the Class 4A District 9 tournament with 11 wins, when they face another powerful non-district opponent Jan. 18, in Newsome.
In district play, the Chargers were nearly perfect at 5-0-1, with their only blemish coming in a 3-3 tie Nov. 13, against Hillsborough. Strawberry Crest will hold the No. 1 seed going into the Class 4A District 9 tournament, where they will play the East Bay-Tampa Bay Tech winner at 5 p.m. Jan. 24, at Plant City High School.
“That was the worst 48 minutes of soccer we played all year,” said head coach Scott Vomacka about the Hillsborough game, during which his team fell behind 3-0 before battling back with three unanswered second-half goals. “Whatever we tried to do didn’t work. When we got to the second half, we got a spark off a corner kick, and then they started to believe in themselves, and next thing you know, we scored two more goals in the next 12 minutes.”
According to Vomacka, the Chargers’ main downfall has been consistent play throughout an entire game.
“We’ve had spurts, where your eyes are open and you realize we could have something special going on, but it would be nice to piece together a whole 80 minutes to see what we can do,” he said.
That inconsistent pattern showed Jan. 8, in a road game against Riverview. It was the Chargers’ first game back following Christmas break, and they found themselves down 2-1 late in the second half. That’s when senior leader Noah Shaffer stepped in during a team water break.
“He was not happy and told the team that we didn’t come this far just to give up this easy,” Vomacka said.
The Chargers would score three goals in the final 15 minutes for a 4-2 win.
“It took them (Riverview) out of the game real quick,” Vomacka said.
According to Shaffer, he and the rest of the six seniors knew that this season had potential to be special.
“After the Hillsborough game, we decided that we were going to work harder, so we didn’t have to work that hard again for a game,” Shaffer said. “We decided that we wanted to try to go undefeated and used that as motivation. If we go down, we think that we can beat anybody and come back no matter what the score is.”
In addition to Shaffer, who has six goals and six assists on the year, the Chargers are led by seniors Mazeed Aro-Lambo and Patrick Mayo. Aro-Lambo, who also excels in the classroom and has earned a full academic scholarship to Northwestern University, leads the Chargers with 14 goals and 34 points.
According to Aro-Lambo, the goal of this year’s seniors is not to only find success this season but also further establish the Strawberry Crest program for the future.
“We want to improve the program as a whole, so when the seniors leave, it carries on throughout the years,” he said. “That’s a huge goal of ours.”
The Chargers are on the right track. Vomacka’s team has improved each year since the program began in 2009. After falling short in 2010-11, the Chargers advanced to regionals last season for the first time, falling to Plant City 6-1 in the district title game before suffering a 7-0 defeat to Seminole in the regional quarterfinals.
“It was an eye-opening experience for us to realize that, if we want to get to the next level, this is what we need to be,” Vomacka said of Seminole, who ended up as the state runner-up last season.
One of the biggest questions headed into the year was how the Chargers would be in goal, but junior Nick Kubecka has been solid, with a 1.25 goals against average and has recorded three shutouts.
With Kubecka, a strong defense and an offense led by Aro-Lambo, Mayo, Shaffer and junior Aldair Moralez-Sanchez, along with others, the Chargers appear to be headed in the right direction.
“I like the position we’re in heading into the district tournament,” Vomacka said.
The Raiders have been plagued with injuries and setbacks this season. According to head coach Chris Black, every starter on his team except Edgar Morales has missed time due to an injury or a red card suspension.
“We have had 19 different lineups in 19 games,” Black said. “We hope to have all of our players back for districts.”
Plant City is 10-8-1 entering Friday’s regular season finale with Wharton. The Raiders will host the Class 4A District 9 tournament and will be the prime-time game at 7 p.m. Jan. 22, when the No. 3 seed plays No. 6 seed Hillsborough.
The Cougars are 3-6-2 entering the regular season finale at Freedom Friday. They will enter the Class 5A District 7 tournament Tuesday in the opening round. According to head coach Will Tunstall, the Cougars need to use an intensity they have shown recently to be successful in the tournament.
“There is much more desire evident in our training and as a result the fitness has improved dramatically,” Tunstall said. “If this factor comes together with the technical skill set that my players already possess, Durant will be a major threat.”
The Cougars are led by Eric Salmeron, Jesus Molina, Derek Wells and Duncan Fisher, along with defensive leader Ben Eisenhauer and team captain Josh Mansilla.
Class 4A District 9
Strawberry Crest, the No. 3 seed defeated No. 6 seed Tampa Bay Tech 2-1 Tuesday night at home. The win sends the Lady Chargers to the semifinals Thursday, where they will face No. 2 seed East Bay.
The top-seeded Plant City High girls team will face the winner of Hillsborough-Brandon Thursday night at Strawberry Crest, the tournament host. The game was originally scheduled for Wednesday, but was pushed back due to finals week. The Lady Raiders are 5-0-1 in district play this season, with their only non-win coming in a scoreless tie against East Bay. Plant City is led by juniors Ericka Lott (24 goals), Stephanie Galloway and senior leader Kellee Brown.
Class 5A District 7
No. 5 seed Durant fell to No. 4 seed Bloomingdale 3-0 Tuesday at Plant High. The loss ended the season for the Lady Cougars.