Tampa Bay Hellenic will open the WPSL Sunshine Conference playoffs against South Florida Strikers on Tuesday, July 17. Photo Credit: Tampa Bay Hellenic
Women's Soccer News: Tampa Bay Hellenic Aim for another WPSL Final Four Appearance
By Scott French
Tampa Bay Hellenic's path to the Women's Premier Soccer League's (WPSL) final four last year was simple. They won the Sunshine Conference title. Voila!
This year's quest for a WPSL championship is a little trickier, with three playoff victories – starting Tuesday night against the South Florida Strikers – required to reach championship weekend, and Hellenic coach George Fotopoulos has no problem with that.
“Honestly, you can look at different views. People have different opinions,” said Fotopoulos, whose fifth-year team repeated as Sunshine champ with a 7-0-1 record. “Being a developmental league, our kids have only played eight games. I would take the New York Giants' way of being a wild card and playing more games. Our kids, every game they get to play, they get more experience, more game fitness.
“Not to say if we get to [the final four], we wouldn't benefit from a rest. But I would prefer to play games up to the final four.”
Hellenic have conquered everybody in the Sunshine, but they'll have to do so again. Four of the five clubs are in the postseason tournament, with semifinals Tuesday and a final Thursday leading to a Southern regional final Saturday against Southeast Conference titlist Gulf Coast Texans (7-0-0) for a spot in the final four in the WPSL, a national league with more than 70 clubs.
Hellenic are home against the Strikers (1-5-2), whom they crushed, 5-0, in Sunday's final regular-season outing. That game wasn't the norm: Five of Tampa Bay's seven wins have been by one goal. They beat South Florida, 3-1, in the first meeting.
“We went through the division undefeated, but we could have had five losses as well,” said Fotopoulos, the director of coaching at Tampa Bay United, the youth club with which Hellenic is affiliated. “I'm very proud to say our division is very good and very competitive. It's a great division that has great teams. I don't like to use 'fortunate,' because we worked hard, but our record, it could have been different.”
Tampa Bay is led by Stacy Bishop, a former University of Florida star who played in Women's Professional Soccer with the Boston Breakers and Atlanta Beat. The 27-year-old central midfielder was the conference's player of the year last year, and Fotopoulos says she is “hands down the best player in our division” – and her impact extends far off the field.
“Stacy hurt her hamstring, and we played two games without her,” Fotopoulos said. “I'm always impressed by how good Stacy is on the field, but the things she does off the field – being a captain and a leader, giving insight to the girls on different things ... when she was out, for me the tremendous things she did for us were as valuable as what she does on the field.”
Also making big impacts are goalkeeper Emily Ball, a South Carolina-bound college freshman who starred on Tampa Bay United's U-18 state champions; University of Florida defender Karina Gutsche, whose absence through injury the past three games has been a challenge for Hellenic; and 2010 Atlanta Beat draft pick Shameka Gordon, who moved from striker to central defense when Gutsche went down.
They're huge favorites to reach Saturday's game against Gulf Coast Texans, from Pensacola, Fla., but Fotopoulos isn't counting on anything.
“It's going to be tremendously tough,” he said. “You take a team like [the Strikers], who are coming in as a fourth seed. They've got basically nothing to lose. I think the maturity of our team, the experience of our team, they understand. We enjoyed tremendously winning the divisional title again, and we celebrated it for about 24 hours. Now we realize to have a chance to go to the final four starts against [the Strikers]. We understand that, and we're excited about it.”
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