TAMPA - Three local boys teams - the Brandon Flames U-18, Hillsborough County United Lightning U-15 and Tampa Bay Kickers U-14 - are headed to the U.S. Youth Soccer Association region championships in Austin, Texas, June 24-30 after garnering State Cup wins June 6.
The State Cup is the pinnacle of the club season in the Florida Youth Soccer Association, but the coaches of each of these elite clubs say their teams are hungry for more.
If the teams win region titles, they earn a berth in the USYSA national finals at Disney's Wide World of Sports on July 21-25. The last Florida team to do so was the Team Boca Gunners U-17 boys in 2001.
Florida has several smaller clubs, making it difficult for its State Cup winners to compete with those of other states, where megaclubs can have upward of 10,000 players.
End of a Flames era
The Brandon Flames have been together since they were U-9 players and have garnered five state titles in 10 seasons.
In fact, because of their unprecedented success, all competitive teams of the Brandon Area Youth Soccer league will use the Flames moniker.
With region championships in sight and most players going to college this fall, the end of an era is starting to sink in with the Flames players and coaches.
"This is it for us. This is our last hurrah. We want to go out on a high note and have some fun," Flames coach Scott Sedlak said.
The Flames took this year's U-18 title with a 2-1 overtime win against West Kendall Optimist on Garth Juckem's golden goal.
Juckem, a former Jesuit standout, will be a sophomore at American University. Three years ago, Juckem also scored a golden goal against West Kendall to give the Flames the U-15 State Cup.
The Flames topped the Clearwater Chargers 3-1 in this year's semifinals before facing West Kendall, which beat the Plant City Lancers 2-0 in the other semifinal.
Sedlak said despite carrying a light roster (13 players) and having a difficult pool draw that includes last year's region champ Georgia, he thinks his squad has a good chance.
"We are a good team that has a tendency to play great," he said. "We can play with anybody if we only have to play one match in a day."
The Flames' lineup includes the Times' 2002 Hillsborough Player of the Year Chris Sedlak in goal along with Bloomingdale teammate Tom Davison up front as a scoring threat.
Sedlak said the team will not field a U-19 entry in next year's FYSA State Cup. He expects most of his players to compete in the Premier Development League when they're off from college.
Another Lightning strike?
With a name that has the ring of a champion, the Hillsborough County United Lightning won the U-15 boys title 2-1 over Southern Soccer Coalition of Miami.
Southern had knocked out the Black Watch Royals 2-0 in the semis, and the Lightning prevailed by the same score against Central Florida United of Orlando.
"The team is so strong because every team member does his best every time he steps on the field," coach Tony Padilla said. "Our dream and expectation is to bring the Region Cup home."
The Lightning's impressive record since the players were U-9 includes victories in the Atlanta Cup, Sun Bowl and SuperClubs National Championships.
The Lightning was a finalist in last year's Manchester United Premier Cup, falling 1-0 to the eventual U.S. champion Irvine Strikers. The Premier Cup is the top competition for U-14 clubs in the world. The Brandon Flames advanced to the international finals in 2000.
"Becoming state champions has been the only title that has eluded us," Padilla said. "We were in the finals before and lost, but this year we were unbeatable. We were mentally and physically prepared to take it all, and we did."
To say that the Lightning dominated in State Cup play would be an understatement, as it outscored opponents 35-1.
Jeremy Hall, a national pool player in residence at the IMG Academy in Bradenton during the school year, proved he is one of the country's elite with a pair of goals in the semifinals and a goal and an assist in the final. Fernando Gonzalez was the team's defensive MVP. The Lightning roster also features several players from Class 6A semifinalist Gaither, including Eric Lee, Joey Lopez, and Mike Favero.
The Lightning faces the state Olympic Developmental Program teams in Cocoa Beach Saturday before heading west for regions.
The Lightning played this season in the Region III Premier League, meaning it has faced many of the teams it will see at regions, and it has gained respect in the South.
"The coaches have done a great job, not only keeping that core of players together but finding the right mesh of talent," HCU coaching director Adrian Bush said. "They've really made a name for us."
Kickers thrive again
Until 2003, the name Tampa Bay Kickers belonged to Jeff Brattain's elite one-team club that garnered four state titles in five tries. Once his players left for college, the respected name was vacated a year.
This season, the Kickers were reborn when Olivier Cerf and Laurent Thuriere borrowed the name to start a new U-14 squad built around their sons, Stefan and Sebastien, respectively.
"The bottom line is our two sons made a list of kids they'd like to play with," Cerf said. "At the end of State Cup, we called them, and to our surprise, they all said yes. Basically, we got the top crop of the area."
The surprises did not end there. The Kickers went on to win the Walt Disney World Showcase against highly ranked teams from other states.
In the State Cup, the Boca Juniors were shoe-ins for the title, having won the state championship last season though they played up an age level.
But the Kickers, down 2-0 to Boca, rallied to tie it. Then, playing a man down with two yellow cards, they edged the Juniors 3-2 on penalty kicks. The Kickers had knocked out St. Petersburg's Strictly Soccer Select 3-2 in the semis.
"(The Boca Juniors) were probably the better team," Cerf said. "We may not have the top talent, but we have kids that like each other, win or lose. They're a real team. If we win regionals, I'd be shocked. But then, I've been shocked all year."
Cerf said they will try to take the team to the next level by playing in the Region III Premier League next season and finding additional players and sponsors.
"We did this for the kids," Cerf said. "The clubs are nice, but they're too much on their own agenda. It's not always for the kids. This is only for the kids."