Whenever Sunshine State Conference rivals University of Tampa and Florida Tech get together for a soccer game, the stakes are high. One or the other has won the league title every year since 1986.
Same story this year. The Spartans, ranked No.
9 in NCAA Division II, play their final home game of the season at 7:30 tonight when they host third-ranked Florida Tech at Pepin/Rood Stadium.
UT (10-2 overall, 4-0 SSC) has won eight consecutive games while Florida Tech (12-1-1, 4-0) has outscored its last three opponents 18-1. Both teams are loaded with talent and healthy for tonight's game.
"We both have a balanced attack with a lot of weapons and a lot of options," UT coach Tom Fitzgerald said. "You can't key on any one guy. It should make for an exciting match."
After consecutive losses to a couple of top 10 teams (South Carolina-Spartanburg and Southern Connecticut State) early in the season, Fitzgerald switched his on-field alignment from a 3-5-2 configuration to a 4-4-2, shifting an extra player from the midfield to defense.
Keiran O'Neill, a senior transfer from England via Wisconsin-Green Bay, became the sweeper and has helped shut down opposing defenses. His leadership has limited opponents to nine shots in the last two matches and he was named SSC player of the week for last week.
"We never got settled on defense last year, but this year, we think we've got it covered," Fitzgerald said. "But Florida Tech should be a big test with Marco Genee (9 goals, 2 assists) and James Phillips (8 goals, 1 assist) running up front."
Martin Nebrelius, a senior from Sweden who already has set the school's career assists record (43) this season, is UT's leading scorer with 10 goals and 10 assists. Another Swede, junior Ulf Lilius, has five goals and nine assists to rank second on the team in scoring. Kristjan Brooks, a junior from Iceland and UT's super-sub who has started just two games, is tied for third in scoring with Adrian Bush, a fifth-year senior from Hillsborough High School. Brooks has eight goals and one assist while Bush has six goals and five assists.
Tonight's game also matches the SSC's top two goalkeepers. Florida Tech's Martin Peat has allowed 0.94 goals per game and UT's David Winner has given up 1.05 goals per game.
Rooting for the Spartans _ at least for tonight _ is Saint Leo, which hosts the Spartans in UT's season finale on Wednesday. With SSC scoring leader Sam Koleduk, the Monarchs (11-4, 4-1) are enjoying their best season ever and could force a three-way tie for the conference title if UT wins tonight and loses on Wednesday.