TAMPA — Upon returning from last season's 1-0 region final defeat at Bradenton St. Stephen's, a band of Tampa Prep players hopped a couple of school fences by dark, crept through a dugout and gathered on the soccer field.
Not for a prank, but a pact. In the chilly downtown Tampa darkness, the Terrapins underclassmen vowed the fate that had just befallen the seniors — on a 74th-minute goal, no less — wouldn't repeat itself.
"We just looked at the field and said to ourselves, 'We can't let this happen again,' " senior forward Anthony Baumann recalled.
"And those seniors looked at us and said, 'Don't let that ever happen again.' The winning mentality here is. Once we win, we expect it to happen. And the people who left, they expect us to keep the winning tradition."
Whether the Terps can fulfill that vow remains to be seen. Soccer, after all, is a game of wicked rebounds and wacky deflections. On paper, though, the 2007 and '08 state champs appear capable of proving last winter was a proverbial hiccup.
"I think this is actually one of the strongest teams we've had at Tampa Prep in a long time," said senior forward Wes Sever, a George Mason commitment.
Four of the top five scorers are back, including Sever and Baumann, who teamed for 25 goals last season. The defense, anchored by four-year starter Travis Simmons, is so solid, the absence of a proven goalkeeper doesn't seem a huge concern.
Impact transfers Alex Politis (Berkeley Prep defender) and Aaron Burrell (Jesuit forward) further fortify the roster.
"Last year, they got to experience what it felt like to lose, and I think that's probably a good thing for them," coach Doug Smith said. "Maybe it built a little bit of a fire inside.
"At least that's the hope."
Teams to watch
1. Tampa Prep (13-5-4): The 2007 and '08 state champs abound with skill and seasoning. Whoever emerges at goalkeeper, the team's lone uncertainty, will benefit from a stellar set of defenders.
2. Jesuit (24-2-1): The Tigers must rebuild most of their midfield and replace goalkeeper Robert Kouwe. But top scorer Stephen Gathman and brilliant defender/midfielder Tyler Hartlage are back.
3. Gaither (9-10-2): Our sleeper pick. The Cowboys lost only one senior who logged considerable action last season and gained two impact transfers, including Charlie Delmar from Sickles.
4. Durant (25-3): The Cougars return top goal-scorer Billy Fanning and goalkeeper Connor Bass from the best team in school history. But they must replace four defensive starters.
5. Berkeley Prep (29-3): Last season's Class 3A runnerup lost three of its top five scorers and both goalkeepers but returns reigning Times county player of the year T.J. Roehn.
Players to watch
F Anthony Baumann, Sr. Tampa Prep: Led Terps in goals (14) and assists (16) as a junior.
F Andrew Buckley, Sr., Tampa Catholic: County's 2008-09 scoring leader is a University of Tampa commitment.
F Billy Fanning, Sr., Durant: A Times first-team all-county pick, led the Cougars with 26 goals last season.
F Stephen Gathman, Jr., Jesuit: Led Tigers in scoring (15 goals, six assists) last season.
MF/D Tyler Hartlage, Jr., Jesuit: On a team loaded with underclassmen, Hartlage (six goals, six assists last season ) might be the best.
MF/F Taylor Nalls, Sr., Freedom: Top returning scorer (14 goals) for Class 5A state runnerup.
F T.J. Roehn, Sr., Berkeley Prep: Reigning Times county player of the year is USF commitment.
MF/F Jordan See, Jr., Gaither: Cowboys' top scorer (15 goals, eight assists) as a sophomore.
F Wes Sever, Sr., Tampa Prep: A George Mason commitment, tallied 39 goals as a sophomore.
D Travis Simmons, Sr., Tampa Prep: Entering his fourth season as a starter.