TAMPA – The 16th High School Soccer Classic kicks off on Saturday afternoon at the Ed Radice Sports Complex with a presitigious title on the line for the 24 teams set to compete.
But while taking away a championship from a tournament that contains a number of returning Florida state champions, and numerous sides currently in the ESPN Rise Winter Fab 50 rankings, the ability to build momentum, and the chance to build confidence, entering the second half of the season is at the forefront of many coaches minds.
Last season, Berkeley Prep built off its Classic title by making a run to the Class 3A state championship. Buccaneers coach Tim Cooper said competing and defeating such a strong level of competition gave his team a big boost of confidence, and the belief they could compete with anybody.
“When you win a prestigious tournament like that, I think it gives your team some self-confidence,” Cooper said. “I think it gives your team respect from other opponents, especially for us as a smaller school, a 3A school, I thought it kind of put us on the map not just in 3A but in the bigger picture of high school soccer. For us to win that last year was a tremendous accolade.”
Gaither coach Eric Sims saw a similar effect. After his side had struggled in the first half of the 2008-09 season, the Cowboys were 0-7-1 entering last season’s tournament, a shootout win against Lake Brantley and victories against Jacksonville Bolles and Sarasota put the team into the tournament semifinals with a new belief in what their season could hold.
“It definitely springboarded us into the second half of the year realizing that we were a good team, and that we had been unlucky in a lot of results,” Sims said. “I think with us, even last year, we didn’t win the thing, but it still helped us going into the second half of the year saying we could play with anybody.”
This season Gaither opens with Orlando Bishop Moore, and then faces an all-Hillsborough County clash with Tampa Prep. With the Terrapins ranked No.17 in the latest ESPN Rise poll, and the Cowboys ranked No.50, both coaches are excited for the first meeting between the two sides in either of their tenures.
“We’ve heard a lot about Gaither, we know they have some quality players, and we’re excited about the opportunity to play them,” Tampa Prep coach Doug Smith said. “Any time you have an opponent that’s recognized nationally, regardless of where they are from, but particularly if they’re in the same city, it kind of builds up some excitement within the players. The opportunity to play a team like Gaither, that’s just going to make the tournament for us.”
For Sickles coach Tony Calvo, whose side opens against defending Class 3A champion Bolles on Monday before a game against Niceville later in the day, the tournament is a chance for the Gryphons to continue their emergence as a potential state contender. After coming close to advancing into the semifinals the past two seasons, Calvo said his side is eager to break through this season.
“I think this year, these guys are hungry for this tournament,” Calvo said. “We’re at that point right now where physically we’ve been training hard, a lot of the boys on the team have been mentally preparing for every game, and it shows. It shows at our practices, it shows at our team dinners, it shows when we walk on the field that these guys really feel that this is their year to go pretty far.”
And a run to the latter stages of the tournament could provide, as it has for others in years past, just the springboard they need to do so.
“I think if you do well in this tournament,” Smith said, “because it is so prestigious, and brings in so much good competition, I think that really provides some insight as to where your season will end up.”