The Plant City Raiders are hoping for another stellar soccer season this winter.
There’s a lot of pressure on the Plant City Raiders to perform well after last season’s state championship win. That’s why the team is working so hard to make its opponents feel some of that pressure, too.
The Raiders’ fast-paced approach to the game is designed to both set their teammates up and wear the other teams down, which is how you get efforts like that of the 2017-18 team that averaged 4.2 goals scored per game. It forces the Raiders to get their instincts up and doesn’t leave much room for players to sit around and think for too long.
That’s the one thing head coach Caleb Roberts and his staff desperately want the 2018-19 team to avoid, but for a different reason. Plant City High School installed reminders of last season at both ends of the field for all to see, but too much time spent by the players dwelling on last year’s win and getting comfortable with it could lead to a disappointing new season.
“We’re training really hard mentally and physically, but it’s more of a mental game because we’re still back on last year,” senior Paulino Ramirez said. “Mentally, we’re still in the past. We’ve got to move past that.”
Fortunately, the Raiders still have pieces in place to play at a high level. Epifanio Castro, who led the 2017-18 team with 13 assists and scored 10 goals, is back. Luis Leos, whose 11 goals were second on the team last season, is back. Ramirez, a big-game player whose scoring touch against the Miami Beach Hi-Tides helped save the Raiders’ state championship hopes, is back. Alexis Garcia and Rex Lott are back and serving as team captains this time around. Roberts believes his team can overcome losing Eric Ugarte, who scored 21 goals and served up 11 assists in his final high school season.
“The rising juniors who are now seniors are having to step into those roles. It may take a little while for them to adjust,” Roberts said. “However, I think come January or February, when the games really start to matter, they’re going to be playing very well and leading the team.”
It hurt the team to lose senior goalkeeper David Jalomo for the season due to a torn ACL six weeks ago. Jalomo is expected to be cleared to start kicking a ball in February, which is when postseason play begins, so his odds of suiting up for Plant City this year are razor-thin. Roberts does like what he sees in senior Gerardo Cruz in net, though, and said there’s plenty of talent behind him that’s pushing for their own chances.
“Whoever’s playing best that day is going in net for us,” Roberts said.
Plant City has known nothing but winning since Roberts took over the boys team in 2016. The Raiders posted a 35-2-1 record in the last two seasons and 1-0-1 thus far in 2018. That 1-1 tie against Brandon on Nov. 13 might look like the team getting off to a slower start than expected, but Roberts believes it’s the best thing that could have happened for a team so used to ending games on the right side of the scoreboard.
“If you look at any team coming off a championship year, it’s always a slow start,” Roberts said. “Look at the Eagles this year. It’s always hard to get back into the groove of ‘forget last year, let’s focus on the game ahead of us.’”
Getting back to DeLand in February for a proper title defense game isn’t off the table, but the Raiders will have to deal with — and dish out — pressure like never before.