TAMPA — His team was already heading into the Christmas break on a high, but Steinbrenner boys soccer coach Chad Ebright left his players with one more reason to shout.
Ebright informed his Warriors of their national ranking, a lofty No. 25. And that will only get better after what happened Saturday. The Warriors won the 20th annual Berkeley Invitational title with a 5-2 win over Palmetto.
A state semifinalist last year, Palmetto’s lone loss this season before Saturday was to national No. 1 Montverde. And so all Steinbrenner did was blitz to a 3-0 lead in the first 20 minutes. Even the Warriors didn’t expect that.
“No, not at all,” said Michael Connell, who scored twice, as did Blake Wilson. “We all wanted to beat them so bad after what happened here last year. And I guess emotion just pulled us through that start of the game.”
Palmetto won in penalty kicks at last year’s Berkeley event.
Connell scored seven minutes in, taking advantage of a failed clearing attempt and outmuscling a defender to the ball.
Ten minutes later, Noah Keene took a shot on a free kick from 60 yards away, and it went in after a failed punch attempt by Palmetto’s goalie.
“Guess I got a little lucky there,” said Keene, who keyed a strong defensive effort alongside Josh Rodriguez.
Then right at the 20-minute mark Wilson ripped a shot from 20 yards for the unexpected three-goal lead.
“We were fortunate. Against Palmetto, 3-0 just doesn’t happen like that,” Ebright said.
Palmetto (13-2) got a goal before the half on Ben Espinal’s penalty kick, making the next score crucial. Connell got it on an assist from Zachary Yarish three minutes after halftime.
“That fourth goal was the most important one of the game,” Wilson said. “We knew it was going to be hard tonight, and that really solidified our position.”
Wilson made it 5-1 when he drew a foul and buried the penalty kick.
Palmetto got a little despondent, prompting coach Dustin Dahlquist to pull six players with 22 minutes left.
Ebright had another reason for making sure his players knew they were getting national recognition: It also means they will get their opponents’ utmost attention.
“We’re going to get everyone’s best game now,” he said. “In Hillsborough County at least, we’re the measuring stick. And we’re only in our fifth year. That’s what we’ve worked for.”
Steinbrenner (12-1-1) got two second-half goals from Austin Labban to defeat Berkeley Prep 2-0 in the semifinals.
Jesuit’s Daryian Flores scored with 15 minutes left to tie Palmetto, but the Tigers lost their semifinal 3-1 as Palmetto scored with six minutes remaining and added a goal in the closing seconds.
Jesuit (9-3-2) took the third-place game 1-0 against Berkeley Prep (4-7-3) on a Paul Anderson goal. Auburndale claimed fifth place by beating Newsome 5-2.