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By MIKE READLING
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 3, 2001
TAMPA -- The King Tournament may be significantly downsized this year and the Soccer Field Classic may be making its debut, but that doesn't mean there will be a shortage of high-caliber soccer to kick off the new millennium.
Whether it's girls or boys, state-ranked or nationally recognized competition, county or out-of-county schools, soccer fans will have some tough choices to make this week deciding which games to attend.
First up is the King Tournament, featuring eight boys and eight girls teams from public schools throughout the county.
The tournament, which begins play in its 19th year this afternoon, typically involves every public school and is spread out over a week-long period, culminating with a grueling final on the Bill Stewart Stadium field.
But due to Florida High School Activities Association regulations regarding the number of games a school can play in a seven-day period, the number of tournament games allowed and the fact that a team must play the other teams in its district twice during the regular season, King boys coach Dave Outlaw was forced to move the tournament from the beginning of the year to this week. He also had to pare down the brackets to 16 teams.
"It's much, much smaller this year," Outlaw said. "We've got a lot fewer teams and no consolation bracket like we've had in the past. You lose one and you're done. Should be easier for me. It's nice because now it's just show up and play. There's not a lot of fanfare with the tournament this year. It's just like the state series at the end."
Outlaw said plans are in the works to turn next year's tournament into a round robin format, guaranteeing each team three games and including most of the schools in the county.
Outlaw's Lions enter the tournament as one of the favorites along with Brandon and Wharton. King and Brandon have a minor edge on the rest of the field after participating in the Puma tournament during the holidays and should be slightly sharper than the competition. It was during the Puma that Brandon defeated Flagler Palm Coast, then the No. 1 team in the nation. King, which sits in sole possession of first place in its district, finished 1-2.
One of the Lions' losses came to California's Mater Dei High, which assumed the No. 1 spot in the nation only to lose it this week after being upset in another tournament.
On the girls side, Bloomingdale and Brandon should fight it out for the title in what could be a preview of an upcoming district tournament showdown.
The game to watch tonight will be the East Bay-King girls at 5:30. The Indians surprised the field two years ago by making it to the final before losing to Tampa Catholic. The Indians have also knocked the Lions out of contention each of the past two years.
East Bay has also already beaten the Lions during the regular season, although King struck back with an overtime win during a holiday tournament last month.
The Soccer Field Classic at Gaither is a first-year project put together by Cowboys coach Adrian Bush, but that doesn't mean it's a baby by any means.
Bush has attracted one of the most talented fields this side of the Puma tournament, which featured five of the top seven teams in the nation.
Leading the way is Gaither, the defending Class 6A champion. It is joined by district rival and perennial state favorite Bloomingdale, although the format is set up so those teams won't meet.
Land O'Lakes, which has appeared in the past three final fours, and Jesuit, which had its attempt for an unprecedented fourth consecutive state championship halted in the title game last season, fill out the field.
The field also includes three of the top 15 teams in the nation -- Gaither is still ranked No. 3 despite Mater Dei's loss last week, Jesuit is No. 5 and Bloomingdale is ranked 15th -- and Land O'Lakes, which is on the edge of breaking into the top 25.
The champion will be determined by accumulation of points. A team will get six points for a win, one point for a goal up to three goals, and one point for a shutout.
"The thing about it is this tournament is wide open," Bush said. "The first game is tougher than the second. Any team has the potential of beating any other team very bad."
There is one problem, however.
Bush, who has worked since the summer to ensure the tournament happened, will miss almost all of it while he takes a national coaching course at the University of South Florida to receive his "B" license, making him eligible to coach at the college level within a year. His classes run from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m.
"I'm not going to get to see any of this and that sucks," Bush said.