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TAMPA — Entering the stretch run of the boys soccer regular season, parity seems the prevailing theme. Aside from one or two district tournaments, no top seed appears a lock to roll through its respective bracket. At this juncture, our area forecast calls for packed defenses, penalty-kick rounds and profound drama. That in mind, here are five burning questions entering tourney play:
1. So, which is the toughest district?
While we’re expecting the unexpected in the seven-team 5A-7 district (where Newsome is top seed), the most interesting scrum likely will unfold in 4A-8. Sickles (9-1-2) is No. 1, but only via coin toss. The Gryphons, Steinbrenner (12-1-3) and Gaither (6-5-3) — the top three seeds, respectively — played each other to a draw in the regular season. Also consider: No. 5 seed Wiregrass Ranch defeated Gaither 6-0 in early December, while No. 4 Freedom topped Wiregrass.
2. Can Tampa Prep repeat as Class A state champion?
You betcha. The Terrapins (11-1-1), who try to avenge their lone loss at Jesuit tonight, don’t possess the Division I-caliber go-to guy of recent seasons, but they’re solid and seasoned up the middle. Defensively, they’ve surrendered only 10 goals.
“Last year, if (Florida Class A player of the year) Jordan (Hayes) didn’t score, we were more like, ‘What are we going to do now?’ ” senior center-midfielder Shaddy Douidar said.
“This year, we have a lot of people who can score, we have good people out wide who are willing to go up and score. No one really has the jitters this year.”
3. Is this the year Lennard breaks through to the postseason?
We’ll say this: The Longhorns (7-0-5), who never have reached the playoffs in their seven-year existence, are capable.
Though relegated to a No. 3 seed in the 3A-9 tourney for using an ineligible player in one match, the Longhorns possess several proven scorers and a stout defense. Veteran sweeper Rene Garcia and third-year starting keeper Daniel Garron anchor the back.
In their regular-season meeting against top-seeded Jesuit, the Longhorns packed the back with a 5-4-1 formation and salvaged a 1-1 tie on a late Garcia header.
“We’re a relatively young school and we’ve been eliminated in the semifinals every year,” coach Mark Robinson said. “So we’re trying to take that next step. It’s time to get over that hump.”
4. Speaking of Jesuit, do the Tigers have a title run in them?
Depends on their depth, which has taken a pummeling lately. According to coach Bob Bauman, the Tigers (14-2-3) have lost six players — including defenders Austin Haines, Michael Serrano and Paul Schweiberger – to various casualties in the past 10 days.
“It’s been quite an unusual year,” said Bauman, whose team nonetheless rolled past Lakeland Jenkins 4-0 Monday. “My hope is Tuesday when districts start, we don’t have any more illnesses because we’ve already paid the price through the regular season.”
Partially offsetting the losses on defense is the likelihood that Jesuit will face teams in the district tournament readily willing to sacrifice offense to congest the back and minimize the Tigers’ scoring chances.
“Our focus has to be on finishing the execution of our plays,” Bauman said.
5. Who are the sleeper teams?
Plant (8-3-1), the No. 3 seed in 5A-7, has won six in a row against solid competition including 4A-9 top seed Strawberry Crest. Few are talking about King (8-6-4) in 3A-9, but the Lions have played Lennard and Jesuit to scoreless ties. And while Gaither has a modest record, does anyone really want to play an Eric Sims-coached team in the opening round?
Class 5A-7 at Riverview
Tuesday: No. 4 Wharton vs. No. 5 Durant, 3; No. 3 Plant vs. No. 6 Bloomingdale, 5; No. 2 Riverview vs. No. 7 Alonso, 7
Jan. 24: Plant-Bloomingdale vs. Riverview-Alonso, 5; No. 1 Newsome vs. Wharton-Durant winner, 7
Jan. 26: Final, 6
Class 4A-9 at Plant City
Tuesday: No. 2 Brandon vs. No. 7 Armwood, 3; No. 4 East Bay vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay Tech, 5; No. 3 Plant City vs. No. 6 Hillsborough, 7
Jan. 24: No. 1 Strawberry Crest vs. East Bay-TBT winner, 5; Plant City-Hillsborough winner vs. Brandon-Armwood winner, 7
Jan. 25: Final, 7
Class 4A-8 at Gaither
Jan. 23: No. 5 Wiregrass Ranch vs. No. 4 Freedom, 6; No. 3 Gaither vs. No. 6 Chamberlain, 8
Jan. 25: No. 1 Sickles vs. Wiregrass-Freedom winner, 6; No. 2 Steinbrenner vs. Gaither-Chamberlain, 8
Jan. 26: Final, 7
Class 3A-9 at Lennard
Tuesday: No. 1 Jesuit vs. No. 8 Middleton, 6; No. 2 King vs. No. 7 Jefferson, 8
Jan. 23: No. 4 Leto vs. No. 5 Spoto, 6; No. 3 Lennard vs. No. 6 Robinson, 8
Jan. 24: Jesuit-Middleton winner vs. Leto-Spoto winner, 6; King-Jefferson winner vs. Lennard-Robinson winner, 8
Jan. 25: Final, 7
Class 2A-9 at Tampa Catholic
Jan. 23: No. 1 Berkeley Prep vs. No. 4 Clearwater Central Catholic, 5; No. 2 Tampa Catholic vs. No. 3 St. Petersburg Catholic, 7
Jan. 25: Final, 7
Tuesday: No. 8 Academy at the Lakes at No. 1 Tampa Prep, TBD; No. 5 Cambridge at No. 4 Carrollwood Day, TBD; No. 7 Seffner Christian at No. 2 Calvary Christian, TBD; No. 6 Bishop McLaughlin at No. 3 Indian Rocks Christian, TBD
Jan. 24 at Tampa Prep: Seffner-Calvary winner vs. Bishop-IRC winner, 5; Cambridge-CDS winner vs. AATL-Tampa Prep winner, 7
Jan. 25 at Tampa Prep: Final, 7
Joey Knight can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JoeyHomeTeam.