PLANT CITY — Many figured Plant City's soccer team might be headed for a down season. Its 2010-2011 playoff hopes had been dashed with a district semifinal loss to Newsome, the team had lost its top two offensive threats to graduation, and a new coach had taken over just a week before tryouts.
How does 10-1-1 sound for a rebuilding year?
The Raiders have blazed out to one of their best starts in school history, playing well not just against local teams but some of the best in the country.
"Playing some of those teams definitely helped this team to gain experience," first-year coach Chris Black said. "They saw what they can do against some very good competition, because the caliber of teams we played was impressive."
Black is referring to the Raiders' recent third-place finish at the Berkeley Prep Invitational. After disposing of perennial area powers Land O'Lakes and Tampa Prep, Plant City hung tough with last year's ESPN national champion, Montverde Academy, the nation's No. 5 team, before losing 1-0 on a late goal.
"They were the best high school team I've ever seen," Black said of Montverde. "Their skill level was higher than ours, but I couldn't be more pleased with the effort we showed."
Fighting through the fatigue of four matches in three days against elite competition, the Raiders went on to defeat American Heritage, the nation's seventh-ranked team and the owner of four state titles since 2004.
"It really was one of the biggest games in this program's history," Black said.
Although it's his first season, Black is well aware of Plant City's tradition. His father, Jim, and brother, Alan, have coached the Raiders. Chris played on the inaugural team in 1981, and his son A.J. played for Plant City before graduating last season.
"We've been around this program forever, it seems like," Chris Black said.
There may have been questions coming into the season about who would put the ball into the net, but midfielder Cameron Roberts has answered those emphatically. Roberts, also the placekicker on the Plant City football team, has scored 24 times this year.
"We didn't have a lot of time for conditioning with our new coach before the season, so I think at first, it was a matter of the guys earning trust in him," Roberts said of the coach. "But we have great chemistry now and after that Berkeley tournament, we know we can play with anybody around here."
The Raiders also have some punch up top with forwards Gerson Herrera (nine goals) and Berkeley Prep Invitational All Tournament player Juan Naverette (eight goals). Plant City has scored 45 goals in just 12 matches.
"We have a lot of options," Roberts said.
Defensively, the Raiders are strong up the middle. Plant City's back line is anchored by 6-foot-2, 180-pound sweeper Trent Lott and stopper Dalton Hunter. Keeper Brennan Smith has 1.08 goals against average and also was named to the Berkeley Prep Invitational All Tournament Team.
With the recent success, Roberts thinks the Raiders are poised to make a deep playoff run this year, something the program has never accomplished. Plant City has advanced past the region quarterfinals just once (2010) in its 30-year history.
"It seems like the program always has 10 to 12 wins, but the playoffs are where we stub our toe," Black said. "That's something we want to change, and the first goal is winning the district title."
Brandon Wright can be reached at email@example.com.