DADE CITY — The bronchitis that has beaten down Barry Grayling for several days was still swinging Tuesday.
As Pasco's boys soccer players assembled for a windy afternoon practice, their coach kept his hands buried in his pockets and had the hood of his black warmup jacket pulled snugly over his head. Four days earlier, Grayling had missed the Pirates' 5-1 loss to Hudson in the Class 4A, District 8 title game.
"I just don't want it to get worse," he said.
By today's region quarterfinal at Celebration, Grayling hopes the malady has run its course.
As for goal-scoring and air-tight defense, well, he hopes that remains contagious throughout his lineup.
Forced to find a new source of offense following last year's graduation of all-time Pasco County goal-scoring king Jose Montelongo, Grayling has found it bubbling from the unlikeliest of places: a diminutive sophomore, a lanky defender, even a converted goalkeeper.
Seven current Pirates have scored at least five goals (eight if you count the player recently dismissed for violating the school's attendance policy). Combine that balance with a rebuilt defense that posted seven consecutive shutouts in January, and the Pirates (18-3-3) may be the area's surprise team of 2009.
"Well, let's see, the papers wrote us off from the start of the season, that we wouldn't be a force to be reckoned with. But you know me, I'm just here to go along with my business," Grayling, a former decorated British soldier, said with a mild grin. "On paper, really, before the start of the season, you would've looked at Gulf and Hudson being the top teams."
So much for projections. The Pirates, whom Grayling estimates lost no fewer than nine starters from last year's 21-6-2 club, tied Gulf twice and Hudson once, and topped the Cobras 1-0 in mid December. In the district tournament loss to the Cobras, goalkeeper Gilbert Tanguma (discipline), senior midfielder Ernesto Garcia (leg injury) and Grayling (illness) were either absent or sidelined.
Hudson's five goals were one more than the combined total Pasco allowed in its previous 17 matches, a fact that seems to astound even Grayling.
For good reason. Tanguma (15 shutouts), who showed up in the final hour of last season's tryouts and earned a backup spot, became the starter when incumbent Jacob Pollock expressed a desire to play in the field. Senior sweeper Blain Sanderson is a converted midfielder, and juniors Will Edwards, Travis Giella and Nathan Tellez are first-year starters.
The offense has arrived from equally unlikely places. Sleek senior twin forwards Jared and Gared Bennett (15 combined goals) are the catalysts, but 5-foot-7, 140-pound sophomore Eric Garcia (17 goals) is the top scorer. Sanderson has seven goals, two on corner kicks. Even Tanguma has scored three times.
"The Bennetts' speed helps us a lot," Ernesto Garcia said. "They both play up top and they know how to open up wide for us, and that pretty much opens up the middle for us so we can play the ball."
It's a glaring contrast from last year's strategy, which Garcia said was "pretty much put the ball up there so (Montelongo) could get it and score."
Who knew when these Pirates lost the one daunting dimension of their team, they would gain a few more.
"I think, considering what they had to (follow) with the Montelongos … and all them that's gone through here, I think they've done a great job," Grayling said.