TAMPA — Steinbrenner’s defense — which had allowed just nine goals in 16 games before Wednesday’s Class 5A, District 7 semifinal — had already proven itself to be thick-skinned through some of the greatest of challenges.
But with 17 minutes to go against Palm Harbor University, a playoff spot on the line, the Warriors were met with perhaps their biggest obstacle yet.
Shortly after Andres Saenz scored Steinbrenner’s second goal in the 57th minute, Austin Labban was issued a red card. And a few minutes later, David McGee received his second yellow of the night. Both were benched and couldn’t be replaced, and the Warriors had to play down two men the rest of the game.
Using most of its man power to defend its lead, Steinbrenner eventually won 2-1 after a strong defensive effort late kept the Hurricanes from scoring. Steinbrenner will play East Lake on Friday in the championship.
After Wednesday’s win, Steinbrenner (15-1-1) coach Chad Ebright seemed relieved to have simply gotten by. Much like the first semifinal of the night — when East Lake (15-1) topped Plant 2-0 after a pair of Josh Page goals — referees stopped play often for fouls and penalties, and the Warriors and Hurricanes accrued eight yellow cards and one red card between them.
The Warriors’ infractions were far more costly.
“It’s very tough (to play man down). You have to just defend, and that’s not our game,” Ebright said. “We were lucky to win that one.”
In the 18th minute, Steinbrenner took a shot that PHU’s Jacob Carson attempted to clear. Steinbrenner midfielder Blake Wilson intercepted then shot the ball, which deflected off the post into the goal. The Warriors later led 2-0 after Saenz’s score until a penalty in the box allowed Carson to take a penalty kick, on which he scored.
In the second half, PHU, which outshot Steinbrenner, had three shots bounce off the posts, including a free kick in the 80th minute that hit the crossbar and went over the net.
“It’s mentally grueling,” Steinbrenner goalkeeper Christian Knight said about having to defend to win. “But when it’s all said and done, you come out here to compete no matter what the odds are, no matter what gets called against you.”