Though they have one of the best goal scorers in the area, the hopes of the Plant City Raiders' girls soccer team hinges on a completely different unit.
"The old saying is defense wins championships and if we're going do anything in the postseason it will be due to our back four," said Raiders head coach Caleb Roberts.
The group of seniors Kellee Brown, Nidia Gutierrez, junior Kelsey Brevik and freshman Deanna Rodriguez has started each game this season. And while the up-top players have had their moments, such as two 8-0 victories and a recent 12-0 demolition of Armwood, it's the tighter games where the defense has stood out.
The Raiders finished the regular season with a 7-3-3 record but in many ways the nonvictories have been more impressive. Their last outing was a 1-0 defeat to Bloomingdale where the defense, and sophomore goalie Taylor Michael, were incredible.
"Not to use it as an excuse, because Bloomingdale is a strong team, that was the last day before vacation. Let's say keeping our girls focused was a challenge," said Roberts.
Plant City's other two defeats were to Plant and Steinbrenner and by respectable scores of 2-0 and 3-1. Plant is a state-title contender and Steinbrenner is two seasons removed from a state crown. The ties came against Wharton in the season opener, Newsome (a team Plant City had never tied or beaten), and district foe East Bay.
It's that East Bay squad that Roberts expects to face in the district finals as no other team in Class 4A, District 9 has a winning record. But Strawberry Crest, the third seed, does have home-field advantage. Plant City won a hard-fought 2-0 decision against the Chargers Dec. 14.
Plant City has only made the postseason twice in its history and has never won a playoff game. But this group certainly appears to be one that can change. Junior Ericka Lott, just as she's been since her freshman season, is the team's leading scorer with 24 goals.
"She's been in the zone. It looks like every time she takes a shot, she's going to score," said Roberts, who said Lott and company struggled at first with his changing the team's alignment to a 4-3-3, from a two-forward system.
Wingers Stephanie Galloway and Diana Corzine have been tremendous running down the flanks and either crossing it in to Lott, or trying to score themselves. And another key has been Christina Gutierrez, usually a defensive player, taking to her role as an attacking central midfielder.
If the Raiders get to the playoffs, they will take on a Pinellas County team —- likely from the group of Seminole, Tarpon Springs and Largo — when the regional quarterfinals kick off Jan. 23.
Darek Sharp can be reached at [email protected]