Boys soccer | Saint Stephen's wins third straight district title

jdill@bradenton.comJanuary 27, 2013 

ST. PETERSBURG -- With his body sprawled on the ground, J.J. Byrnes heard a familiar sound.

It signaled to Saint Stephen's junior keeper that his work wasn't done.

So Byrnes picked himself up quickly and snagged the following shot.

Sure the Falcons (15-2-1) were up two goals and there was a little more than a minute left in the Class 1A-District 8 boys soccer final.

But Byrnes' stop came during a furious rally by host St. Petersburg Shorecrest Prep, and it helped preserve the Falcons' third consecutive district championship.

Saint Stephen's captured the title with a 3-1 victory on Saturday to set up a regional quarterfinal clash with Largo Indian Rocks Christian on Jan. 30.

"I have a lot of top coaches who tell me to always get up right away after you make a mistake (or) make a save," said Byrnes about the pivotal save after a penalty in the 79th minute rebounded off a post. "It was only

natural. It was instincts to get back up. I didn't see it. I just heard it hit off the post … I was ready for a blasted shot, something just blasted at me. But I don't know who took it, I just saw it bounce toward me and I landed on it."

With both sides showcasing an ability to possess the ball and thwart attacks, it was Saint Stephen's that stemmed the tide just before the water break in the first half by clogging the midfield with pressure.

As a result, Jorge Zavala slipped through 19 minutes into the game and pounded a right-footed shot into the net to arm the Falcons with a 1-0 lead.

No less than a minute later, Toby Howell padded that cushion after benefiting from sloppy Shorecrest defending.

Howell, a sophomore, darted toward space behind the Chargers' back four as his brother and seventh grader Henry Howell lobbed a pass.

Shorecrest's defender failed to clear the ball off his boot, and Toby Howell found himself one-on-one with the keeper which he beat.

It was a demonstration of Saint Stephen's youth movement as the club has jostled players around the pitch because of injuries.

"You talk about character," Falcons head coach Marc Jones said. "We are without so many players. So many leaders of our team that are injured right now. We're asking our young players, our underclassmen to step up. We had a seventh grader and two eighth graders that were starting out there. And I just cannot, for all of these guys, I cannot tell you how proud I am of them. The effort, the intensity was just superb."

Starting defenders Camron Tally and Tim Nutter are out with injuries, so Jeremy Jackman, who starred in midfield and forward during last year's district, was positioned in the back.

And Zavala, who terrorizes opponents on the left wing with sublime pace, was moved to the back late in the game as the Chargers rallied.

His position change coincided with midfielder Matthew Jones' departure. Jones, who was appearing in his second match since returning from a groin injury, was lifted for match fitness reasons. He is expected to be ready for next week's regional quarterfinal, and was a force as a holding midfielder in the Falcons triumph on Saturday.

Conner McCullen, who predominantly played keeper last winter, played a central forward role for Saint Stephen's against Shorecrest and was stymied for the most part.

That changed when fellow senior Sam Lynch weighted a through ball perfectly as McCullen toe-poked it past Shorecrest's charging keeper.

It gave the Falcons a 3-0 lead, but Shorecrest pulled one back with two minutes remaining and looked to creep within one goal after a penalty was called for a handball in the box.

However, Alex Horden's shot rattled off the post and Byrnes, who had guessed incorrectly, raced up to stop the rebounded effort.

"I think the pressure on the guy, on the shooter, made him miss," Byrnes said. "Posts are a goalkeeper's best friend."

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