TAMPA – After nearly 100 minutes of play, the Steinbrenner girls soccer team clinched its third straight district title with a 2-1 victory over Freedom.
The Warriors (15-3-2) fought through a physical affair throughout much of the game to get past their district foe, Freedom, for the first time in school history after tying the Patriots three times in as many years. And they did so from an unlikely source: A freshman.
Freshman Remy Brantley, who hadn’t tallied a score during the regular season, found herself in the right place, at the right time for the game winner.
“(It felt) amazing,” said Brantley, who had been substituted in for injured player Jessica Taylor minutes before. She then added, “Just being a freshman on the team, not knowing if it was going to go in, I wanted it to go in and it went in.”
In the first half, the Patriots kept the Steinbrenner offense under control with defensive disruptions up and down the field that made it difficult for the Warriors to get anything going. After Steinbrenner senior Cici Gonzalez attempted a free kick that was deflected in front of the net by a Freedom defender, senior Taylor Valley along with Gonzalez marched it back into scoring range where she would catch Patriot goalkeeper Emily Ball off-guard for the team’s first goal of the night.
“Oh my gosh, all I know is I took off down the line and Cici sent it to me,” said Valley. “I trapped (the ball) and I realized that Emily was behind me and I saw the defender running and was just like ‘I have to shoot a hard pass’, it was unbelievable.”
The Warriors pressure wouldn’t stop there. The team took two more direct shots on Ball before the Patriots would be able to finally get into scoring position.
And they did so with speed.
The Patriots forced the Warriors back into their own zone and caught sophomore goalkeeper Stephanie Hirsch falling to the ground before Warriors sophomore defender Miranda Gonzalez used her whole body to block away a direct shot, keeping the lead 1-0 headed into the half.
“One of the reasons we can play such an offensive style and take as many risks as we do, is because we have (Miranda) back there,” said first-year Warriors coach Robert Woodard. “If we didn’t have her back there, we couldn’t play this kind of wide-open attacking style.”
The Patriots however wouldn’t trail for long, as they came out firing in the second half against the Warriors defense and Hirsch.
While the Warriors kept possession in the Freedom zone throughout the first 10 minutes, Patriots senior Alyssa Daniello found a crease and put the ball in the net to tie the game at 1-1.
“Somehow I didn’t think we would sit on a one goal lead,” said Woodard.
The two teams were locked in a stalemate throughout the remainder of regulation, as both Ball and Hirsch continued to shine between the pipes, even after slamming face first into the goal post after Freedom’s first goal.
Woodard said she gave him quite the scare, especially after an injury that occurred at the Bloomingdale game two weeks before.
“I wish Stephanie would quit doing that to me,” Woodard said of his goalkeeper’s injury. “A couple weeks ago, it was Bloomingdale she caught the bottom of the goal and opened up and got eight stitches. … (I thought) here we go again.”
Hirsch would leave for a concussion test, but would return minutes later.
After regulation, both teams combined for six shots on net, making life difficult for the two goalkeepers.
The Warriors tried to sneak one over Ball’s head again, but found themselves stifled by the University of South Carolina commit.
“They have a lot of speed up top and they do well to utilize it,” said Ball, who finished with 12 saves on the night.
Then with under two minutes left to play in the second period of sudden victory overtime, Brantley came through to start the celebration.
“It feels great, it feels wonderful,” said Woodard. “This is the perfect time for a goal, anytime when you get into overtime, you want to do that and you want to keep going forward and we want to finish. That’s our mentality, to finish the job.”
On Brantley, Woodard added, “She’s composed and she’s aggressive,” he said. “Remi’s the kind of player that no one wants to play in practice. (The players) say ‘Coach, make Remi stop following us’, and there no better kid on the team, I’m so happy for her, I’m just overjoyed.”
The defending Class 4A state champions will host the 4A Regional Quarterfinal on Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m.
Woodard says the experience of playing a team of Freedom’s caliber, gives his squad a little more faith for the next round.
“This was good for us, to play against a team with that character, it helps us going forward.”
Jeff Odom / Sports Editor