Marc Jones left Pepin Stadium on Wednesday night a lucky man.
He knew it, too. Because typically when coaches leave Pepin Stadium, site of the state soccer final four, they do so knowing a lot of the guys they just watched play won’t be in uniform this time next year.
Anyone who watched Jones and his Saint Stephen’s Falcons play their way into a Class 2A boys soccer state semifinal knows that won’t be the case when practices roll around next fall at Turner Fields.
The team loses just three seniors from this year’s roster, including leading scorer Chris Scott and the versatile Ryan Brown.
“We can be replaced,” said Scott, who addressed the Falcons following Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to Jacksonville Providence.
This is not the norm. Teams are usually laden with seniors and experience when they make their runs to Tampa, and are typically prepping themselves for a winter-long rebuilding season.
That’s how the prep sports cycle is supposed to work -- you put the pieces in place for a big run, and when it ends, you start from scratch.
The Falcons experienced something like this two years ago, when experienced veterans such as Ryley Delgado, Chandler Whidden and Kevin Peterson drove them to first final four since 2001.
Last year, there were some lumps -- Saint Stephen’s missed out on winning its district and was thumped by Tampa Prep in the first round of the regional playoffs.
Some improvement was expected this year, though perhaps not even Jones, the team’s venerable head coach, expected the season to stop a game shy of a state final.
But it did. And next year, everyone should be back.
The Falcons are expected return a defense anchored by sophomore goalie Connor McCullen and backs Colin Yates, Cameron Tally and Jeremy Jackman. They’re expected to return junior Brett Messieh, the team leader in assists, and Matthew Jones, who scored nine goals as a freshman, as well as Adam Vining, a junior who is now a part of two final four teams.
Jorge Zavala scored the first goal during Saint Stephen’s regional final win in Vero Beach -- and he is just a freshman.
Most importantly, Saint Stephen’s returns a team that knows what it takes to win a district tournament, knows what it takes to knock off a tradition-rich power such as Tampa Prep and knows what it takes to suit up under the lights at Pepin Stadium.
Getting to the final four is never easy and consequently, never a given. Next year’s Falcons are not assured of anything.
But they will have the pieces in place to do something special yet again.
Few teams leaving Tampa this weekend can make such a claim.