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Spartans spotlight

By ROD GIPSON
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 7, 2001


Path to national title not easy for Tampa

TAMPA -- In beating California State University-Dominguez Hills on Sunday, the University of Tampa men's soccer team not only completed its dream season by winning the NCAA Division II national championship, but did so in familiar fashion.

Forced to rely on come-from-behind wins during the regular season, the Spartans became the official comeback kids during their stretch run.

In winning its last five games -- all by 2-1 scores -- UT came from 1-0 deficits in four of the five. And in the one match when they didn't have to come from behind, the Spartans successfully defended a late 1-1 tie.

Leading scorer and offensive spark Roy Fink said it was nothing new for the Spartans.

"I don't know what it is," said Fink, a sophomore forward. "Maybe we like to give the crowds a good show. Whatever it is, we have been able to do it all season long so it wasn't a situation where we would panic or anything. We were just used to making plays late in games."

And in going 19-0-2, the national champions made plenty of them at the end of the year.

In closing the regular season Nov. 3 against Sunshine State Conference rival Lynn, the Spartans rallied with goals from Fink and Ilir Disha to win in overtime. A week later, the Spartans repeated the feat, beating Lynn in the opening round of the playoffs on goals from Fink and Huettich.

After a relatively comfortable 2-1 win against Lander in the NCAA quarterfinals, UT returned to its dramatics in last weekend's semifinal matchup against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. The Spartans fell behind 1-0 and waited until a little more than 3 minutes were left to tie the score on a Fink goal that eventually sent the contest into overtime.

Thirteen seconds into the extra period, Kareem Escayg ended the game with a goal wedged past the Cougars' keeper.

"I was just trying to make something happen," said Escayg, who had a disappointing regular season with three goals. "And I got the shot and it just got in."

But even as the Spartans advanced to the title match, coach Keith Fulk had to wonder if the heroics could happen again if needed.

"You know, we prepared all season the same way as the first week of the season," said Fulk, who led UT to two NCAA appearances before this season. "But these guys just kept working hard and it just paid off."

Cal-State Dominguez Hills jumped out to a 1-0 lead in Sunday's final and held it until late in the game. With time running out and needing a comeback, sophomore Jason Bell scored off a header in the 80th minute to tie the game for the Spartans. Josh Huettich scored the assist on Bell's goal.

In need of a hero and a goal, the Spartans found Escayg.

With 3:40 remaining, Escayg stole a pass at midfield and led the Spartans down the field. He ripped a shot from 25 yards away, which deflected off a Toro defender and went just over the outstretched hands of keeper Luis Morales.

"I was just trying to hit it for power," Escayg said. "I really didn't even aim."

It didn't matter.

By the time the ball hit the back of the net, UT was on its way to its third men's soccer national title and its first since 1994. It also propelled unlikely hero Escayg to most outstanding offensive player honors for the tournament.

But the accolades didn't end there.

Escayg was also named SSC Player of the Month for November and helped his team earn the SSC Player of the Week award.

Fink, Marlon Rojas and Robbie Folbrycht were also named all-tournament.

"Every team that was (at the final four) was talented," Fulk said. "But this was about who wanted it. Like I said before, this was about who turned it up a notch and we did."

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