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TAMPA — Immediately after the celebratory photos and team rendition of the Sickles alma mater, conflicting accounts surfaced as to whether aching Gryphons goalkeeper Ryan Cooper asked to be removed from Saturday’s Class 4A, District 8 final.
What is undisputed is this: Even as the slender sophomore’s right hip throbbed, so did his competitive guile and keeper’s instincts. The result was the save of the season.
With the score tied, Cooper deflected a penalty kick by Steinbrenner captain Enrique Barboto with 16 minutes to play. Eleven minutes later, junior Nate Schmidt headed in a cross from classmate Myles Ramsey, clinching a 2-1 Sickles victory.
“Well, I love to be humble,” Cooper said. “But I have to admit it was a good save.”
That save and Schmidt’s goal created an unlikely finish to a match mostly dominated by Steinbrenner’s ball control. The Warriors (15-2-3) outshot Sickles (11-1-3) 17-10 but watched several opportunities sail wide or either bounce off the crossbar or Cooper’s upper torso.
“It’s been stacked against us all year because we’ve had injuries, guys kicked off the team for behavior at school …this team just never quits,” Gryphons second-year coach Carl May said. “They never quit.”
Steinbrenner, seeking the first boys district team title in school history, took the lead early in the second half on Jason Collister’s header off a Michael Connell corner kick.
Two minutes later, Sickles freshman defender Carter Mulroe headed in a free kick after asking May if he could go upfield.
During that sequence, Cooper (eight saves) already was grimacing, the result of apparently straining his hip flexor after lunging for a long shot late in the first half. Cooper said he never asked to come out; May said he did.
“And I said, ‘You’re not coming out until it’s that bad that you’ve got to come out,’ ” May said. “He said, ‘If it gets worse I’ll let you know.’ And he goes back out there and what does he do? The kid is amazing.”
5A-7: Chemistry is key for Plant
RIVERVIEW — The last time Plant and Newsome met, the Panthers were still missing a few football players, including quarterback Aaron Banks. As it turns out, Banks’ arm — not feet — came in handy Saturday night.
Banks’ long throw-in midway through the second half was finished by defender Seth Rinkevich as the Panthers took out top-seeded Newsome 3-1 to capture the 5A-7 district title.
“It was a beautiful ball,” Rinkevich said. “I was unmarked and I just wanted to get to it .”
First-year Plant coach John Feely said the addition of Banks and Michael Harlow, plus the Panthers’ growth as a team, was the difference between Saturday night and the Wolves 2-1 win over the Panthers Nov. 13.
“Having those guys come in and work their way into the team has been big,” he said. “And these guys have watched a lot of film and worked hard. They earned this.”
In the 62nd minute, Banks unleashed a deep throw-in to the Wolves’ box. The 6-foot-2 Rinkevich got his head to it, then cleaned up the loose ball to put Plant ahead 2-1.
“It took us awhile to get things going this season,” Rinkevich said. “But we’ve been piecing things together and have things flowing right now.”
Newsome opened the scoring just six minutes in when Ajay Sequeira drew a foul in the penalty box. Sequeira converted the penalty kick but Feely said the goal may have been just what Plant, which looked a little sluggish earl on, needed.
“I think the goal actually helped,” he said. “Because at that point you know you’re not going to play flat anymore because you’re behind and it’s early.”
Tyler Rorrer’s long service led to an equalizer from Thomas Del Pino in the 27th minute, and Plant seemed to control the run of play from that point on. The Panthers put the finishing touches on the win with just five minutes to play when Luis Zapata fed Auston Molina.
Brandon Wright, Times correspondent