TAMPA – For 45 minutes, Saint Leo’s men’s soccer team was able to play with the No.9-ranked University of Tampa.
Then, in a 15 minute span to start the second half, the Spartans were incisive with their play, and decisive with their finishing.
Lister Warren recorded a hat trick as Tampa scored four times in the opening 16 minutes of the second half on its way to a 5-1 victory on Thursday night at Pepin-Rood Stadium that sealed a share of the Sunshine State Conference regular season title.
The rout took shape in the 49th minute, when Karl Swan won a challenge in midfield, the ball deflecting to Warren in the center circle. Warren looked up and saw Swan had continued to move forward, and he slotted a pass into the right channel to find the midfielder, and Swan finished low into the left corner of the net to put the Spartans up 2-0.
Warren scored his second goal of the night seven minutes later as a long cross from the left by Brian Fekete was headed down by Greg O’ Connor, and Warren lifted his volley over the advancing goalkeeper and into the net.
Zach Fraser then created Warren’s hat trick in the 57th minute, stealing the ball in Saint Leo’s half before sending an excellent cross from the right side into the penalty area, finding an unmarked Warren for a free header into the left corner of the net.
O’Connor made it 5-0 three minutes later as he broke the Lions offside trap on a through ball by Pascal Milien, and made no mistake with his finish.
“We weren’t happy with a lot of the stuff that was going on in the first half, and give Saint Leo credit, I think they did a good job,” Spartans coach Adrian Bush said. “I think they really came out with emotion, and that’s what we talked about, and I’m very pleased with how we responded in the second half against a good team.”
Warren had opened the scoring in the 20th minute, finishing a move that saw Milien drive down the right flank before crossing into the penalty area to O’Connor. Warren created an overlap on the left side of the penalty area, and after receiving a pass from O’Connor finished strongly.
Warren paid tribute to his teammates for their creation of the chances he was afforded.
“It’s all about the team,” Warren said. “I scored the goals, but I give credit to the person who passed the ball in. It’s always a team game.”
Milien in particular was excellent, using his pace and skill to create opportunities for his teammates and himself. While he wasn’t able to find the back of the net, it wasn’t for lack of trying as he had 13 of the Spartans 30 shots, seven of which were on target.
“He was active, we really went after him, talked at half time with him about being more active,” Bush said. “He’s a game-changer. Pascal is one of the top players in the country, and I think he showed it tonight. I think it’s unfortunate he didn’t get a goal, but if you look at the production of what he did, it’s not just about scoring goals. He was one of the men of the match definitely tonight.”
Saint Leo pulled a consolation goal back late, a poor free kick by Tampa allowing Odyss Economides to find Jonathan Glenn for a 84th minute goal, but the goal was the only shot on goal the Lions managed in the second half as they were outshot 21-2 after the break by the Spartans.
Tampa had already received good news before the game began, as Rollins won the women’s SSC regular season title. As such, while the Rollins men were in line to host the SSC final four as the No.1 seed, SSC regulations don’t allow the men’s and women’s tournament to be held at the same location. That means the Spartans will host the SSC Men’s Tournament, where they will face the winner of Lynn and Nova Southeastern next Friday.
Warren said he was looking forward to try and win an SSC title on the Spartans’ home field.
“Home advantage is always a positive,” Warren said. “You have the crowd, you are familiar with the turf and everything. Let’s hope we come out the victors.”