TAMPA - Tampa Prep boys soccer coach Doug Smith has enjoyed guiding some diverse players during his tenure at the school, but he's never had a group with such an international flavor like this year's squad.
For starters, there's Brazilian brothers Gustavo Pires, a senior forward, and Gui Pires, who as a freshman has turned out to be the starting goalkeeper. Then there's Oscar Skjaerpe, the team's 6-foot-3 central defender from Norway. At central midfield, Venezuelan native Rodrigo Diaz is a 5-foot-6 dynamo whose family now lives in Canada.
From a coach's perspective, it's an international line that runs straight up the field from goal to goal. And with assistant Santiago Carreno helping out on the sidelines with Smith, the trend continues to the Terrapins' bench. But these players and coach also bring a certain style of play to the squad, one that has helped lift Tampa Prep into Friday's Class 1A state title game at the University of South Florida's new soccer stadium against Fort Myers Evangelical Christian.
"Between us (non-U.S. players) on the field, I think we feel a little more comfortable playing with each other because I think most of the guys would probably play a different style," said Diaz. "I still work well with the other players here and can play that type of soccer. But with Gustavo being at forward and me in the midfield and both of us having a South American background, we really communicate at a special level."
Diaz says it's even true with Skjaerpe, who is arguably one of Hillsborough County's top all-around athletes. Still only a sophomore, Skjaerpe went from competing for Tampa Prep in the state cross country championships and competing on the swim team last fall seemlessly over to the soccer team. And no matter what happens in Friday's state soccer finals, he will next head to the school's track squad, where last year as a freshman he helped the 4 x 800-meter relay team finish fourth in the 1A state championships.
In last week's state semifinals, Skjaerpe headed in two goals - his highest production of the season for a single game. He credits, of course, his teammates for assisting him on those set pieces but he, too, seems to follow an international style of play and looks at ease playing as a stopper just behind Diaz in midfield and in front of Pires in goal.
"It's a good all-around mix of guys on the team," Skjaerpe said. "Ro (Diaz) is so fast and a good passer of the ball and Gui has done great for us as a freshman."
Gui Pires arrived at Tampa Prep as an eighth grader in February of 2010. He said he wasn't thrilled at first with the idea of leaving friends and family behind in Brazil. But with his brother and parents already here, Gui warmed to the idea.
Initially, Gui was playing middle school soccer for the Terps and, this season, junior varsity. But when starting keeper Daniel Kalter went down early with an ACL injury, Gui was called up to varsity. Before long, he had earned the starter's spot, with Yousef Ghabour specializing in penalty kick shootouts.
Friday, Tampa Prep will take this international group, mix it with homegrown talent like top goal scorer Jordan Hayes, and try to win the school's fifth state championship in seven years. Smith believes that individual diversity is what makes them strong as a team.
"We've got all these different players; guys who are good in tight spaces and pass well, guys who can be physical and get their head on the ball and others who are very good finishers," Smith said. "It gives us the ability to give opposing teams completely different looks and that's a hard thing to defend."