ST. PETERSBURG — Boys coach Rob Bauer, standing on the Lakewood soccer field holding a card with the day's practice schedule, surveyed his assembled group of players on the first day of tryouts in early October.
Bauer worried about what he would witness that day with more than half his starters — guys such as Joray Deliz, now playing at the U.S. Marine Merchants Academy, and Shane Wixted, a fixture in midfield who transferred to Seminole — gone from last year's district semifinal team.
Standing in the shadow of the girls team's 1992 state title banner hanging from the scoreboard, something about that day of practice caught Bauer's attention.
It made the 28-year-old coach smile.
Thirteen games into the season, that smile has yet to disappear.
"We like to play a physical style of soccer, and our teams take pride in being physical," he said. "But some of the younger guys aren't used to playing that way. It's a different style from club soccer.
"In tryouts, I saw some of these young guys taking that step. They were able to hang physically with our older, more experienced players. I started thinking 'Okay, this isn't going to be the rebuilding year I thought it was going to be.' "
In his third season as boys varsity coach, Bauer, who ran track in high school at Cincinnati's Mason High where he was a region finalist, has the Spartans (8-3-2) in position to earn their third playoff berth in the past eight years.
Freshman defenders such as Chris Huber and Tarik Salkicic, along with sophomore transfer Max Thuriere, the younger brother of Times 2008 player of the year Sebastien Thuriere, have melded seamlessly with a group of talented upperclassmen.
Ticking off Lakewood's accomplishments this season reads like a to-do list usually reserved for the East Lakes and Countrysides of the Pinellas boys soccer world.
• Defeating Seminole, the Spartans' longtime nemesis and for years the team to beat in the south county? Check.
• Earning a spot in the PCAC Championship for the first time in school history? Yep. "In my three years, it seemed there was always someone that would knock us off," Bauer said. "We never came close to it."
• Securing the No. 1 seed for the district tournament (Jan. 26-30 at Osceola)? Got that one, too.
"That was our main goal from the first day of practice," senior defender Tom Waterman said. "We hadn't done that in forever."
What's next for Lakewood? How about the program's first region title, assuming the Spartans don't falter at districts. That statement would have appeared absurd before the season, considering the bevy of talented local teams in Class 5A.
Now? Who's to say it's not Lakewood's year?
"We look at that banner with all the girls championship stuff on it, and we think, 'When is it going to be our turn?' " Bauer said. "These guys want to be the best of the best of the best. And I admire that so much in them."