LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Chairs, tents and umbrellas lined the fields at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch during the holiday weekend as more than 250 soccer teams, with players ranging from ages 8 to 18, from across the state competed in the Tampa Bay Labor Day Showcase.
Among those teams was the Lakewood Ranch Chargers, a team of 13 and under boys, who dominated their opponents and left as repeat champions.
The Chargers are coming off of a successful season in which they won the 12 and under title at last year's holiday tournament and won the state championship.
A few months later, the group of about 15 boys is at it again.
"We are beginning this season the same way we finished the 2012 season -- on a winning streak," said Daniel Anderson, whose son, Nicholas, plays on the team. Anderson also coaches the 12 and under boys' squad. "They play the beautiful game the way it should be played. It's fun to watch. If people want to watch how the game is played, they'll watch this team."
The Chargers advanced to the championship game Monday, allowing the West Pines team one goal in the 2-1 victory, after winning four shutouts over the long weekend. The team won 9-0 against a Brandon team Saturday, 8-0 against two other teams Sunday, and 3-0 in the semi-finals Monday morning.
"If we can keep a team at zero, then we always have a chance to win the game," said coach Tim Mulqueen. "We like to think we have a really special group here."
With the pressure as reigning state
champions, the tournament provided the Chargers with the opportunity to play stiff competition in a pre-season setting, Mulqueen said.
"We're No. 1 in the state," said Aristotle Zarris, who is from Bradenton plays center midfielder. "Teams are always looking to knock out the No. 1 team."
The team banded together last season when squads from Sarasota and Braden River formed the Lakewood Ranch Chargers.
"The beauty of it is that it's all local kids," Mulqueen said. "It's nice to know they're all homegrown. It's unique to have so much talent in one area."
Most of the players go to different schools in Manatee and Sarasota counties. Zarris is home-schooled.
"They talk a little trash when they play each other -- friendly banter," Mulqueen said. "But I've never been around a group of kids so grounded and mature."
Parents, siblings and friends cheered for the team, congratulating those who scored, assisted in goals or made strong defensive plays.
"It's fun and it's nerve-wracking," said Chris Huddleston of Bradenton. Her son, Alex, plays goalkeeper. "You want your kids to do really well. When they play with such good players, it's not a one person team. It's a combined effort."
Between the semi-final and championship game, teammates gathered in the shade to joke with one another and scout out their opponent.
"We practice hard. We just do well together. We're a good fit," said Trevor Mulqueen, goal keeper and striker, who goes to St. Stephen's Episcopal School.
Parents said most of the boys have been playing soccer since they were 3 or 4 years old, developing respect for the sport and teamwork.
"They all have such a great relationship with each other," said Mary Ellen Blechta of Siesta Key. Her son, Ryan, plays forward. "These boys have aspirations."
Nancy Anderson, who is from Bradenton, said the boys look forward to playing beyond the high school and collegiate levels.
"Mine wants to go pro," she said of her son, Nicholas, who plays left back. He is only 11 and plays up an age level.
"The success of all of them is unbelievable."
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.