Making it to a state championship match in boys soccer is a terrific feat. Tampa Catholic has done it five times, the latest coming in Thursday’s Class 3A final.
The Crusaders also know just how difficult it is to win one.. Each time they got here before — in 1989, 2000, 2016 and 2020 — they fell short. The players trudged off the field after those losses in silent misery, each wondering why they were unable to snap out of their state final stupor.
This time, the outcome was different.
Tampa Catholic ended years of frustration with a 4-2 win over Miami Westminster Christian.
As the final seconds ticked away, the Crusaders smiled with a glow that lifted the air around them.
It was a moment of unfiltered joy for a state title they could finally embrace.
Tampa Catholic, ranked No. 1 in 3A, fifth overall in the state and eighth nationally, had finally figured it out. It was all there, the jubilation and relief that came with knowing the Crusaders had cracked the safe and learned how a state title is won.
They did it with an offense that had been potent throughout the postseason.
Tampa Catholic has been controlled on occasion — for a few minutes, maybe even a half.
Then things seem to explode.
The soccer ball starts finding its way into the net. The offense becomes unhinged — forwards, midfielders, defenders, it doesn’t matter.
Suddenly, the frenzy is on and every shot seemingly produces a score. It’s like an adding machine gone wild and a tight match becomes a blowout.
It happened last week when the Crusaders kept pouring it on in an 8-1 rout of Jacksonville Bolles in the state semifinals. That outburst boosted Tampa Catholic’s average to four goals a game throughout the playoffs.
So when the Crusaders fell behind 1-0, it was not problematic.
The offense simply went to work.
Marcello Valbuena, Tampa Catholic’s leading scorer, connected on two goals within an eight-minute lead to give the Crusaders’ their first lead, one that would last the rest of the match.
Jack O’ Leary scored to make it 3-1 at the half, then Jacob Spengler blasted in a shot on a penalty midway through the second half to round out the scoring for Tampa Catholic.
It was more than to maintain the lead, one that ended with the Crusaders finally winning the one that mattered most.