LUTZ — Of all places, the seedlings of boys soccer supremacy at Steinbrenner High sprouted on the outfield grass of the Warriors’ baseball stadium.
It was there, in the autumn of 2009, where the Warriors came into this world, kicking and screening. An excruciating inaugural season of Steinbrenner football lingered, forcing coach Chad Ebright to settle for an auxiliary site to stage his first tryout.
“First, we had to come out here (to the stadium track) and run eight laps,” senior defender Cody Lively recalled. “Then once we were done with that, we went out to the (baseball) fields and just did a bunch of cone work … that was about it.”
While further details of that workout are sketchy, the gist of Ebright’s message that day is not: The Warriors would be young (no senior class in the 2009-10 school year) and diminutive, but would compensate with skill and sleekness.
“Yeah, for a high school team we were talented,” senior center-midfielder Enrique Barboto said.
Less than four months later, the Warriors had clinched their first playoff berth.
Less than four years later, they’re a victory from their first state title.
“We’ve always had the potential,” Barboto said.
This morning, the Warriors will bus across the peninsula to Melbourne High to face Naples Gulf Coast (18-3-3) for the Class 4A crown. Aboard the bus will be Ebright and five players from that inaugural workout.
Three of them — Barboto, Lively and top scorer Jason Collister — are captains, long since saddled with the nickname “Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch” by Ebright (it pertains partially to Lively’s former slicked-back hairstyle).
Midfielders Elliott Smith and Logan Siben also remain. Collectively, the quintet composes the nucleus of a 19-2-3 team that finally has fulfilled the promise first spotted on a warning track.
The Warriors have outscored four playoff foes by a combined 20-6, and have won 10 matches by at least five goals. Collister (26 goals), junior Austin Labban (16) and Barboto (15) are the top goal-scorers. Senior Derek Gebhard (nine) may be the fastest forward around.
Meantime, Siben (16 assists) has emerged as the table-setter, while 6-foot-1 junior Christian Knight (0.69 GAA) has been staunch in the net.
“They anticipate each other,” said the 40-year-old Ebright, who spent four seasons as Plant’s coach before helping open Steinbrenner. “They know where they should be or where they’re gonna be. I think anticipation is probably the best thing they do together.”
They were anticipating even in their toddler phase. Almost from the outset, players and coaches sensed this group someday could be the school’s first boys program to win a state title.
Only 12 matches into their existence, they shocked six-time state champ Jesuit, 2-1, at home on a frigid Friday night when the wind-chill factor dipped to 36 degrees.
A season later, they avenged a region quarterfinal loss to Palmetto with a 3-0 postseason triumph, finishing 15-3-2.
“The score was (3-0) but it was pretty convincing on the field that we were better,” Ebright said. “I think at that point is really when we kind of realized that we had something here.”
The following game, they fell 1-0 to Lakewood Ranch, succumbing to a second-half header by a 5-foot-1 Mustangs midfielder. Destiny was derailed again in the winter of 2012.
Forced to forfeit 12 regular-season matches for unknowingly using an ineligible player, Steinbrenner was relegated to the No. 6 seed for the 4A, District 8 tournament and lost to Gaither in the semifinals.
“It was mental, really,” Collister said. “We just didn’t really focus.”
Down to their last season, the veteran Warriors insist their collective focus has transformed from blurred to steely. Now, promise is being realized instead of squandered. The quintessential four-year plan is on the brink of completion.
In the spirit of their first practice site, the Warriors at last have gone deep.
“We’ve always had the potential. I think it was the mind-set that really killed us,” Barboto said.
“This year has definitely been a changer because we’ve taken it so seriously and we’ve believed in ourselves. We’ve actually believed that we can do this. We come out to destroy any team.”