TAMPA — Prior to their final practice before playing in today’s Class 2A boys soccer state semifinal match, Berkeley Prep coach Tim Cooper, encircled by his team, had one final message: “Teams are going to look at our record and underestimate us. Let them.”
The path was far from smooth for the Buccaneers this year. A cursory look as Berkeley Prep entered the district tournament 4-10-5 would make it easy to write the team off.
However, Berkeley Prep’s record was little more than a footnote once the playoffs began, as the Buccaneers captured a seventh straight district title and a third consecutive region crown.
Berkeley Prep (10-10-5) is now two wins away from a Class 2A state title, and the team hopes there are still naysayers as it travels to Melbourne to face Orlando Bishop Moore at 5:30 p.m.
“I’m totally OK with people thinking whatever they want about our team,” senior forward Quinton Kauchick said.
That feeling seems unanimous across the team, as the Buccaneers coach said the beginning of the year saw injuries, a period of adjustment for players in new positions and an unlucky, early inability to find the back of the net, allowing games the Buccaneers controlled to turn into close losses.
“I think we were better than our record, but early on we just weren’t finding a way to finish,” Cooper said. “Some of our guys have spent the whole season playing in different positions, and once we finally found a comfortable rhythm, the rest took care of itself.”
During the past three weeks, Berkeley has outscored opponents 13-4 in its six postseason wins, including a 1-0 win at Fort Myers Bishop Verot last week for the region title. In the match, the teams played to a stalemate for the first 70-plus minutes before senior Austin Iglehart’s long indirect kick found Lance Esposito in the box and the sophomore flicked in the header for the win.
It’s been like that all season, scratch-and-claw wins. A lot of the credit for those wins belongs to an experienced defense led by seniors Iglehart, Kyle Dagostino and Warren Backman, as well as talented keeper Ben Milliken, who averages a little more than six saves per match.
For Milliken, who dealt with a shoulder injury suffered in a gym class dodgeball game, the postseason is a return to form of the kind of play he showed late last season.
“Ben’s more reminiscent of the keeper he was in last year’s final four (run),” Cooper said. “The confidence he has, commanding from the box, coming out and being aggressive — we can’t ask anything more from a player.”
Milliken, a two-year starter in goal, said the Buccaneers’ postseason success is due to the effort the team has put in the past three seasons.
“It means that the last couple of years of work we’ve put in and those disappointing losses finally came together for us,” Milliken said. “It shows that records truly don’t matter and we’re fine working from the bottom to get where we deserve to be.”