TAMPA — There was no way Tampa Catholic’s boys soccer team was going to lose the state title game this year. The Crusaders remembered how terrible it felt after losing in last year’s state championship game.
“Last year we went into the (title) game thinking no one is better than our defense and our offense,” Tampa Catholic senior forward Sean Siwek said. “Then we got caught on our heels and we got beat (3-0 by Fort Lauderdale University High). Right after that loss, we said we wanted redemption. We wanted to get back there and win that state title.”
Tampa Catholic finally did it in the Class 3A title game on March 4, beating Miami Westminster Christian 4-2.
Six players — Siwek, Dylan Dana, Xavier Floyd, Luke Hersey, Jacob Spengler and Esteban Vargas — felt especially good about it because they had played on the 2020 squad.
“There was some pressure, because lots of people at school were talking about it,” Siwek said of playing for the school’s first-ever boys state soccer title after reaching the state semifinals four times. “We felt we needed to do it for us and for the school. It meant a lot to all of us.”
Siwek, Spengler and Vargas, in fact, chose to play for Tampa Catholic instead of for a club developmental team that prohibits players from competing in club and on high school teams. Players are simply forced to make a choice: high school or club.
“I’m so happy I chose to play for my high school,” Siwek said. “No doubt about that.”
So was senior midfielder Marcello Valbuena, who decided this year to play high school for the first time after years of strictly playing club soccer. The Crusaders couldn’t have been much more pleased with the addition of Valbuena, who has been close friends with Siwek, Vargas and Spengler for almost 10 years.
“(Valbuena) fit right in seamlessly,” Tampa Catholic coach Kevin McCarron said. “We switched him (from a defensive position) to midfield, and that really paid off.”
Did it ever. Valbuena racked up one of the best scoring seasons in Tampa Catholic history, finishing with 36 goals.
In the state title game, Valbuena once again came up big in some of the biggest moments.
After Westminster (11-4-2) took the lead with a goal in the 28th minute, it was Valbuena who took a pinpoint pass from Siwek not even 15 seconds later and drilled the ball into the back of the net to tie it at 1. Seven minutes after that, Valbuena scored again off a Siwek assist.
When Tampa Catholic’s Jack O’Leary buried the team’s third goal in the 38th minute, the Crusaders (25-2 and ranked No. 5 in the nation by MaxPreps) started to feel a lot better about things.
“But still not comfortable,” McCarron said. “We were there to finish the job this time. We knew we had to stay focused.”
In the 50th minute, Tampa Catholic got another boost when Spengler scored on a penalty kick, giving the Crusaders a 4-1 lead.
But with 12 minutes remaining, Valbuena was called for his second yellow card of the game, resulting in his ejection. That suddenly meant Tampa Catholic — as when its leading scorer was ejected in the 2020 state final loss — not only had to finish the game with 10 players against 11, but it had to play without one of its most skilled and athletic players.
“Fortunately, this time we had the big lead,” McCarron said. “But it was a little unsettling to say the least.”
In the end, Tampa Catholic finished the past two years with a combined 48-4-2 record and with plenty of dramatic wins along way, including a 3-3 (3-1) regional quarterfinal victory this season over Calvary Christian in penalty kicks. In that game, Valbuena also scored on a header to the tie the game at three with 10 seconds remaining in the last overtime.
“We have some great memories from this year, that’s for sure,” McCarron said. “It’s tough to win a state soccer title, but we finally did it. Finally.”