Thursday, January 18, 2018
Sports

Strawberry Crest boys soccer seniors never stopped believing

DOVER — They told Plant City just wait until 2012.

They told Durant just wait until we're seniors.

They were right.

Strawberry Crest's boys soccer team is undefeated. Not bad for a fourth-year program, but especially not bad for one that has never finished with a winning record.

While no one on the team could have predicted a 9-0-1 start, the success is something they saw coming. Five seniors, all of whom have been with the Chargers since they first took the field in 2009, have seen their predictions come true.

"I remember when we were freshmen. Against Durant (a 4-0 loss), Newsome (8-1), Plant City (6-0 in the Chargers' first-ever game) … those teams would trash talk us as they were beating us," recalls Rahul Patel. "We told them just wait, wait until our senior season."

Chargers left defensive back Tarek Kazbour: "We knew from day one, as seniors we were going to be pretty good."

So did Chargers head coach Scott Vomacka, who guided the team through 5-11-1 and 5-10-3 records before they pulled to the .500 mark last year.

Before he took the job after coaching at Leto, Vomacka was made aware of a quartet that had excelled at playing together for the Brandon Area Youth Soccer League, or BAYSL, since age 12.

Now Noah Shaffer, Mazeed Aro-Lambo, Patel and Kazbour along with the fifth four-year player, Patrick Mayo, are showing every bit of that promise.

Still, undefeated?

"No, I didn't really see it to this level," Vomacka said before a recent 5-0 Chargers victory against Tampa Bay Tech.

The Titans came into the night tied for second in district play, having given up just seven goals all year.

But Strawberry Crest controlled play entirely, resulting in three first-half goals all off pressure in front of the Titans' net. Big sophomore defender Chandler Powell pounded in the first goal while the slick-footed Aro-Lambo was there for the next two, extending his team high mark to 11 goals on the year.

Aro-Lambo, incidentally, has an offer for a full academic scholarship to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

"We have a smart group. Much smarter than me," said Vomacka. "This is just such a great group of kids. I knew we'd be a decent team this year, knew we'd be competitive."

He said what has pushed the Chargers to the undefeated level has been its better-than-predicted guile and gumption.

An early indication came in a 2-1 victory against Durant, but, ironically, it's the only blemish on the record that best reflects the team's strength.

In a 3-3 tie with Hillsborough early in the year, Strawberry Crest trailed 3-0 with 30 minutes left and not only evened things up, it had several chances to win in the last 10 minutes.

Another key win came in a 3-2 win over Brandon on Nov. 27. Then came the big game on Dec. 14 at Plant City.

The Chargers came away with an ultra satisfying 2-0 victory that clinched the top seed in the district tournament.

They certainly have help, but the five BAYSL-groomed seniors (Mayo switched to BAYSL last year because, as he says, "I was a senior and I wanted to have fun") are the unquestioned leaders.

Shaffer says that as freshmen, the then-quartet of BAYSL standouts struggled to make a mark because the team's upperclassmen had a tough time turning over the leadership roles to ninth-graders. But this year's team is completely in tune.

Aro-Lambo says the entire team feeds off the seniors, who themselves have quite a bond.

"It's like we communicate telepathically," he said. "Everyone knows what the other is going to do."

Which is why it's fitting that though none of the five had to say it Tuesday, they all know a big playoff run could be in store.

Strawberry Crest did make the postseason last year, however it lost 6-1 to Plant City in the district final then was humbled 7-0 by Seminole in the regionals.

This year, expect things to be different. But don't count out Plant City. In fact, the Raiders would love nothing more than to get the Chargers in the district finals again, and it could happen thanks to the Raiders' Dec. 18 defeat of Armwood.

That lifted Plant City to the No. 3 seed for the district tournament, and in the opposite side of the bracket from the Chargers, who will receive a bye and take on either East Bay or Tampa Bay Tech in the semifinals.

Plant City hosts the 4A-District 9 tournament beginning Jan. 22.

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