The Tampa men’s soccer program has a long and storied history. They have been national champions three times and have been no strangers to winning seasons. The past few seasons however have seen a different ending for the Spartans, one in which they have not been accustomed.
Last season they finished 9-7, 5-3 in the Sunshine State Conference, a mere half game out of first place. They saw their season end prematurely without an NCAA bid, losing to Rollins in the SSC semifinals.
“I think the seniors that have been here for four years have gone through some rough times, which is not the standard that we expect here at Tampa,” head coach Adrian Bush said. “We expect to win the conference. We expect to be in the NCAA tournament. We don’t do that for two or three years, you know, it’s rough.”
This has been a particularly unique year. Bush, who has been at the helms since 2005 and had accumulated an impressive .604 winning percentage, had a large freshman class coming in for the 2016 season. Nine new faces donned the roster with five of them earning nods in the starting rotation. While Bush knew he enrolled the right young men for the 'Tampa way,' there were question marks to how fast they would develop as a team.“We knew we had a really good recruiting class,” Bush said. “We’re starting five freshmen and are still a very young team. We knew talent wise we had a very good collection of players, and the key was getting them to gel and put it all together. They have adjusted well to opening the season. Now it’s about getting them to understand the demands of this conference, and getting halfway there is not even close to the final results.”
Heading into Wednesday night’s showdown with conference rival No. 15 Lynn, the Spartans sat at 6-0-2. Four of those wins came with freshman Jake Richards in net. Along with junior Richard Trench and senior Ben Alpern, Richards — half of whose wins have been shutouts — provided a secure last line of defense for UT. Richards, however, has been well ahead of the proverbial learning curve.
“I really complement all three of our goal keepers, they have all done a good job,” Bush said. “But the work ethic is phenomenal, and with Jake, that’s his strong suit. His training habits are unreal. He’s so focused, and he trains extremely hard. I would say he’s got the job right now. He’s done very well. We were alternating he and Richard Trench, but he’s played the majority of these last few games. He’s been a bright spot. It’s what we expected of him, but his work ethic is what sets him apart from other freshmen who have come in in the past.”
Another freshman who has been superb for the Spartans has been Lewis Sugden. Sugden is currently second on the team with 14 points, good for fifth in the SSC, right behind his teammate and electric goal scorer sophomore Fredinho Mompremier. Sugden has gotten those points unselfishly, leading both the Spartans and the SSC with six assists, tied atop the leaderboard with Eckerd’s Matheus Assumpcao.
“He’s been phenomenal,” Bush said. “We knew what we were getting out of Lewis. For me, he’s the complete package. He’s unselfish, he’s hard working, he’s not afraid to take on players and he’s also more than giving to get the assist. His soccer IQ is off the charts. He’s a guy I think has a bright future, not only with us, but beyond the college game.”
That’s not to say Bush doesn’t have a core of seniors that have been through the wins and losses by his side. In fact, for Bush it’s a family affair.Senior forward Jason Collister is out to a fast start, the fastest of his four-year career with the Spartans. Having just four goals in his three previous seasons, Collister attacked quickly and early and had six goals on the season, splitting time as a starter and bench player over the first eight games of the season. He also happens to be Bush's cousin.
“Coming in he was the 4A Player of the Year,” Bush said of Collister. “For him to come here and play under me as his coach has been very good. He had a very good summer playing in the PDL, he’s a guy that has always worked extremely hard. But the overall chemistry in the group, that’s been the biggest change within him and the team. It’s a group that is working for each other. Going through [down seasons] has been good for that senior group, and they’ve really been a good driving force moving forward.”
Unfortunately for the Spartans, Collister injured his hamstring on a one-on-one breakaway and will miss a considerable amount of time, including Wednesday night’s feature bout.
“The demands of the college season do that,” Bush said. “You get a guy with a hamstring injury, and he misses half the year. That’s what set Jason out.”
Perhaps to the surprise of others, but not to those on the Spartans sidelines, UT was able to jump out to a 6-0-2 start. They were ranked No. 7 in the nation in this past Tuesday’s NSCAA Coaches Poll. Wednesday was yet another high-profiled SSC showdown, as UT and Lynn squared off.
Lynn would rise triumphant, but all was not lost for Tampa. The Spartans left the first half scoreless, trailing by one on a Niklas Tasky goal for Lynn in the 24th minute. The SSC’s leading goal scorer, Lynn’s senior Jack Watson, tacked on another goal, putting Lynn up by two. The Spartans didn’t relent however, as Jake Winship scored in the 79th minute to bring UT within one. They would get off four more shots in the last 12 minutes, that were either blocked or went wide. Still, this young team fought to the final whistle.
“We’ve been down three times this year,” Bush said. “In nine games, we have been down three times, and we have fought back in every one of those situations. There was never really any panic in the game [against Lynn]. The difference was it was men against boys. Lynn is an experienced team; we showed our inexperience in the first half.”
A loss, however, is not always a negative. Tampa can take the positives out of their hard fought battle, especially with the roster being so young and inexperienced. They have now battled one of the best, and they will now quickly learn how to refocus and get back on the winning track.
“I think we’ll grow from that first half experience,” Bush said. “We were much better in the second half. As long as we can grow from that standpoint, we will be fine with the loss. They are a great team. I feel that they are the No. 1 team in our region, especially with the competition they have played so far. It would have been great to win the game, but in fairness, we didn’t deserve to. You can’t come out and play half games against a No. 1 seed in our region and our conference and expect to get results. Having games like this is good for us, we needed this.”
For Coach Bush and the rest of his team, it was back to the drawing board. Bush headed right back to the coach’s room after the loss, downloading video and getting ready for their next match. It’s the SSC, a conference that has four teams currently ranked in the nation’s Top 25. There is simply no time for rest.“It’s long nights,” Bush said of prepping for the trials of the SSC. “You can not get too high on a win, and you can not get too low on a loss because the next game three days later is going to be just as tough if not tougher than the game you just played. There are no easy games in this league. It’s good because it prepares you for NCAA matches, but to get through it, it’s tough. It’s like you can’t breathe.”
Tampa was scheduled to play Flagler on Friday, but Hurricane Matthew had other plans, canceling the event. That gives Bush and his Spartans nearly a week to prepare for their next match against Eckerd, yet another SSC team with an impressive record, sitting at 5-1-2. One thing is for certain: coming off the first loss that many of this roster experienced, Bush will have his young Spartans ready to play.