PLANT CITY — When the Plant City boys soccer coaching job became available this year, the school asked longtime area club veteran Stephen Rossiter to fill the void.
Rossiter always had aspirations of moving up to the high school ranks, but he wasn't sure how the new job would affect his role with his Plant City Lancers club. Then a boldface name bent Rossiter's ear.
When the mayor makes a pitch, it's hard to say no.
"I wasn't about to turn the mayor down," Rossiter said.
With a nudge from Plant City Mayor Rick Lott, Rossiter took over the Raiders before the season began.
"It took a couple months, maybe three, for me to decide to take the job," Rossiter said. "I just wasn't sure how it would fit into my schedule time-wise. But Rick thought I would be able to handle it, and it was something I always wanted to do."
Rossiter, who aspires to coach at the collegiate level some day, also said a big part of his decision to coach the Raiders was helping players reach the next level.
"A lot of high school coaches just coach the games," he said. "College coaches don't come to watch high school soccer matches, they watch club tournaments. So some of these kids who don't play club just aren't seen, and I want to help them move on to college if possible."
The coach has led the Raiders to a 9-0-2 start this season and has the team thinking about a deep run into the postseason. Despite their success in just his first season, Rossiter thought this team might still be a year or two away when preseason training got under way.
"We have so many sophomores and juniors that in the beginning, I figured next year and the year after would be our years," he said. "But after the first couple of matches, you could see the chemistry forming with the boys."
Rossiter said it has been an adjustment moving from the club circuit to the high school level. With differences in everything from the size of the pitch to the way the match is refereed, Rossiter has had to learn quickly.
"The club fields are so much bigger, and that makes a huge difference in the way teams can play," he said. "And I've been written up for uniform violations I didn't even know about."
Rossiter, who has coached locally at the club level for 10 years, also said the officiating is quite different.
"Some refs let you get away with bodying players up, being physical, and others don't," he said. "It's not as consistent (as club) even though some of the refs do both high school and club. I would love to sit in a (Florida High School Athletics Association) class they have the refs take and find out what's expected of them."
As a new coach, Rossiter also said getting the players to conform to his system was a challenge.
"In the past, I've heard the discipline on this team wasn't the best," he said. "Players would show up late for practice or just walk off the field when they wanted. I'm all about discipline."
His approach has worked. After the winter break, the Raiders have two more matches to go before the all-important district tournament. Although their success during the season has fostered optimism, just getting out of district and into the playoffs will be a chore.
The winner and runners-up in the tournament advance to the postseason, but unlike most other districts that have two, or maybe three, top teams, 5A-8 has five. In addition to the Raiders, Newsome, Durant, East Bay and Bloomingdale all have legitimate shots of advancing. The Wolves and Bulls both tied Plant City during the regular season.
"We played our worst two games of the season against Newsome and Bloomingdale," Rossiter said. "The boys just lost focus, and you can't do that against those teams."
Escar Montelongo, Jorge Martinez and Alan Black have proved to be a potent trio at the top of the Raiders attack. Montelongo leads the team with 14 goals, Martinez has 11 and Black has eight. Goalkeeper Chris Sullivan has been solid between the woodwork, and Dragan Jovanski, a foreign-exchange student from Macedonia, has shored up the Raiders' midfield.
"(Montelongo) has just been banging the back of the net all year for us," Rossiter said. "And Martinez assisted on most of his goals. He's only a sophomore, and I think he has a very bright future ahead of him."
Rossiter compared Martinez's game to arguably the most famous soccer player on the planet.
"(Martinez) plays like (David) Beckham," he said. "He has that ability to beat you wide and put a cross right on your chest."
Brandon Wright can be reached at [email protected]