Playing in an Olympic shadow that stretched across the country, a women's soccer team from Tampa won a national title Sunday evening. Then, covered with goosebumps, the victors headed straight for the Olympics.
"It was one of the most, if not the most, crazy, hectic, inspiring days I've ever had," said George Fotopoulos, coach of the Town 'N Country Heather under-20 team, which now has won two consecutive national championships. "It was a day of women's soccer that I'll never forget."
The day began in Indianapolis as Town 'N Country defeated Boston 2-1 in the Snickers Cup, and it gained momentum with a score from Athens, Ga.: United States 2, world champion Norway 1.
The victory meant the U.S. women would play for the gold medal, which caused Tampa's team to go wild. They immediately used some contacts and bought tickets for Thursday's gold medal game against China.
"You've got to understand how close I am to the women on that team to know how thrilled I was to see they had won," said Town 'N Country's Danielle Fotopoulos, who trained with the Olympic team for almost six months and was one of the last players cut. "What the U.S. team is doing is incredibly inspiring to all of us. It makes us want to get better. It gives us hope."
The Tampa team includes three former Pinellas high school stars: Angela Brames (Lakewood/Clemson), Michelle Harris (Countryside/Florida) and Tracy Ward (St. Petersburg/Florida).
"It was a team effort," defender Brames said of the national title. "After we took the lead, we didn't just drop back and play defense. We played aggressively and continued to try to score."
Town 'N Country, which later stopped in North Carolina where coach Fotopoulos also runs a summer soccer camp, will head today for Athens, where more than 70,000 others are expected to watch the women's final.
"I guess women's soccer has struck a nerve," George Fotopoulos said. "It's even hard for me to believe that women's soccer could draw so many people."
You can bet several Town 'N Country players will be filled with Olympic hope Thursday night.
And why not? Former Clearwater Central Catholic star Robin Confer (currently playing for the national under-20 squad) as well as Danielle Fotopoulos are among Town 'N Country players who have competed with or against many Olympic team members.
"There's no way you could count any of those girls off the next women's Olympic soccer team," George Fotopoulos said. "All those have at least a chance to make it."
And he should know, considering Town 'N Country has had eight former players compete in some fashion for the national team the past seven years.
"I don't think the success of Town 'N Country is because of the coaching," said Fotopoulos, who played at Leto and was named the 1992 Division II player of the year at the University of Tampa.
"The girls who came to play for Town 'N Country want to get better and they know that I can get them to play against some of the teams, including some men's and boys teams."
_ Correspondent Dave Theall contributed to this report.