TAMPA — Gaither goalkeeper John Nardozzi can still remember the bitter ending of last season. Two games — the Class 5A, District 9 championship and the region semifinal, just more than a week apart — with the same result: a loss to Sickles on penalty kicks.
“Two games in a row to them? That was tough,” Nardozzi said. “I don’t want to have that feeling again.”
That feeling of disappointment, knowing they might have played a better game but couldn’t pull it out in the end, has motivated the Cowboys since.
And with most of last season’s squad that finished 16-5-1 returning under coach Eric Sims, Nardozzi has reason to believe Gaither can use that fire to create a much more memorable finish.
“I think we can win state,” Nardozzi said. “Between last year and how everybody has developed so far this year, I think we could.”
While Nardozzi didn’t hesitate to predict a deep run, even Sims admitted the Cowboys will need a little good fortune to compete at such a high level.
They are facing the tall task of replacing last season’s entire starting back four — all graduated — and doing so with a group largely bereft of big-game experience. Sims did say, however, he has been pleasantly surprised by how well sophomore Justin Santos and the rest of the group have come along.
“We’ve definitely got players who can do it. The experience just isn’t really there,” Sims said. “They haven’t been in the situations of playing in a district game or a district final yet.”
But there shouldn’t be many questions up front for Gaither. The Cowboys return all of their offensive starters. That includes senior Jordan See, who has been their leading goal scorer since he was a freshman.
“We definitely have a lot of talent,” Sims said. “But I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and we’ve had a lot of very good teams and a lot of talent on teams that haven’t been to the final four. It takes a little bit of luck. You’ve got to make sure you’re playing well at the right time, and the bounces sort of need to go your way.”
Nardozzi, now a senior, will be especially hopeful the bounces go Gaither’s way. Not just to avoid that same disgust and disappointment he felt twice at the end of last season, but to help spur the Cowboys to a championship.
“Any time you don’t win a state title, you’re motivated to come back and do better,” Sims said. “Getting to the final four has got to be the goal. And once you get there, anything can happen. I think it’s a big motivation.”