The Battle Lions are 3-1-1 through their first five games and have two upcoming games that will determine the first-year club’s playoff fate
Tallahassee Soccer Club midfielder Daniel Villa takes a shot on goal as TLHSC played Thomas University to a 1-1 tie during a scrimmage in Thomasville on Saturday, April 27, 2019. (Photo: Brian Miller/Democrat)
Halfway through its inaugural season, Tallahassee Soccer Club is pleasantly surprised with its results so far, but it is not altogether shocked.
The Battle Lions are 3-1-1 and face an important game against Mobile FC on Saturday at 8 p.m. While not do-or-die, a win would go a long way towards securing one of two playoff spots in the Gulf Coast Premier League’s Eastern Conference.
TLHSC sits in fifth place out of 18 teams in the GCPL. The top two teams from three conferences advance to the playoffs, which start on July 20.
Mobile and TLHSC are tied for second in the East standings with 10 points, just one point back of Gulf Coast Rangers, which the Battle Lions will play next weekend on the road and lost to 2-1 on May 18.
“I think we’re definitely ahead of schedule,” Tallahassee SC president Chris Petley said. “We wanted to put together a team that was competitive, and we’ve proven that we can be more than that. It’s a huge game this weekend, and this is an important next two weeks. We’ll see where we’re at.”
Averaging upwards of 620 fans per game, Petley is making a push for 1,000 fans attend Saturday andto crowd the areas around FSU’s main sports complex at the corner of S. Woodward Avenue and St. Augustine Street in College Town. Tickets are $7 for adults and free for children 13 years old and younger.
“I think the fans are surprised a little by the high level we’re playing,” Petley said. “Maybe at the beginning they thought it would be a high-school level competition, but we’ve heard feedback about the quality they get to watch. And then families have told us how much they enjoy the home games and their kids being able to run around, play games and just enjoy a night out with the community.”
The quality of the product is on display in the micros and macros of the roster. From a large scale, TLHSC has had 40 players practicing three nights a week for games. The player commitment has been so strong – it was an unknown before the year – that Petley and the TLHSC board created a second team.
Tallahassee Soccer Club midfielder Aron Wimberly plays against his own college team as TLHSC played Thomas University to a 1-1 tie during a scrimmage in Thomasville on Saturday, April 27, 2019. (Photo: Brian Miller/Democrat)
While comparing it to a varsity and junior varsity team might be analogous, it’s not fair to describe the level of play as second class. The drop off is minimal to none. Tallahassee SC’s second team won its first game two weeks ago against Quincy FC in front of a crowd of nearly 300. Only two other clubs in the GCPL field a second team.
“Ten weeks ago, we knew we had 11 players. We knew we had a starting team that could compete with anybody,” Petley said. “We were wondering what would happen 11-18. Now, depth is one of our strengths. We have a lot of talent on this team and the guys work hard in and out. We wanted to make sure we rewarded 22-40. Everything the first team gets, the second team will get from here on out.
“We did not anticipate this development and it extended the budget, but being able to give them opportunities to play only helps our club grow all around. These lower-division soccer teams are somewhat transient, so we don’t know who will be here next year and having a second team allows us to be even better prepared to start next year.”
Tallahassee Soccer Club forward Sy Fontenot, a graduating Leon High player, dribbles near the end line as TLHSC played Thomas University to a 1-1 tie during a scrimmage in Thomasville on Saturday, April 27, 2019. (Photo: Brian Miller/Democrat)
One of those players that will be here next year is Florida State graduate student Daniel Villa, who hails from Orlando where he played for a high-level club in high school. Two years of junior college soccer in Miami led to a spot playing Division I soccer at USF.
Now, Villa is calling Tallahassee home.
“I got here last fall for grad school and was excited about it,” Villa said. “I came with the mindset that I would be here for three semesters a year, graduate, and go get a job somewhere else. Then I started working with FSU’s women’s soccer team, got more involved with Florida Elite, and this came up.
“I fell in love with the city and the people here. Wearing this jersey means a lot to me. I want to give back to the community, and this is a primary way I can do that.”
Villa has two goals in five games, as do Michael Seng and Boneco Bazil. Recent Leon High grad and 2019 All-Big Bend Player of the Year Sy Fontenot, who will head to West Florida in the fall, has three goals to lead the club.
Leading the team with two assists are Bazil, Lincoln High alum and current Thomas University player Ian Ward, and Johnny Fitzgerald, who will play his first year of college soccer next fall at 2018 NCAA runner-up Akron.
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“The level of play is better than I expected,” Villa said. “When you think of big clubs or signings, they don’t come from Tallahassee. I was a bit shocked by some of the players here.
“We’re confident we can get in the playoffs and win the title. I think everyone in the league now knows us as a competitor. Usually a first-year team may not be a threat, but they know we’re a threat now. We have three wins in a row and they should be scared of us. We’re scoring goals and winning games.”
Tallahassee Soccer Club midfielder Ian Ward, a former Lincoln High player, dribbles as TLHSC played Thomas University to a 1-1 tie during a scrimmage in Thomasville on Saturday, April 27, 2019. (Photo: Brian Miller/Democrat)
Predictably, Tallahassee SC started slow.
In a season-opening, non-league friendly against Savannah FC on May 4, TLHSC tied 1-1. In its first league game at AFC Mobile, the Battle Lions gave up an equalizing goal in the 90th minute during a 2-2 draw. Former Chiles High star Pete Love and Fontenot had goals in that game.
In its second league game, TLHSC lost 2-1 to Rangers and recorded its only goal on an own goal.
Since May 25, TLHSC has rattled off three straight wins. Fontenot scored two goals in a 5-1 win at Pensacola FC during the first-ever Panhandle Cup. Bazil scored on a bicycle kick in the 19th minute of a 1-0 win at Hattiesburg FC.
Then last week, the Battle Lions knocked off the reigning GCPL champs Port City FC with a 3-1 win. Bazil, Seng and Villa all scored.
“We’ve formed chemistry, figured out the style we wanted to play, and implemented the patterns we want in the attacking third,” TLHSC head coach Josh Bruno said. “That’s why you’re seeing some of these goals that are exciting to watch. And we’ll keep working to put that product on the field.”
Bazil, who hails from Orlando and played college soccer in Louisiana, may have created the season’s signature moment with his bicycle kick. Ward served up a ball from the end line to the striker in the middle of the box for a giant game-winning goal.
“Neco gives us a different identity,” Bruno said. “Teams have to be prepared for his 1-v-1 ability on the ball, his ability to see a pass and get an assist, or his ability to finish a play. He’s a complete attacking player. He’s a total threat.”
Said Ward: “We’re for real. Plays like that, what separates some players from others is quality. It was an amazing finish.”
Tallahassee Soccer Club forward Boneco Bazil takes a shot on goal as TLHSC played Thomas University to a 1-1 tie during a scrimmage in Thomasville on Saturday, April 27, 2019. (Photo: Brian Miller/Democrat)
While Tallahassee SC’s record right now is respectable, getting in the playoffs or winning the league in its first season would truly gain the respect of the region.
Following two make-or-break games, TLHSC closes its season with games at Pensacola FC, home against Hattiesburg FC, and at Port City FC.
There could even be an unforeseen postseason home game in the Battle Lions’ future, but the club will cross that historic bridge if and when it gets to it.
“We would love to host a playoff game,” Petley said. “That’s beyond the imagination. We’ve joked, but we don’t have the budget for it or to travel to North Texas if we have to. It’s something we didn’t anticipate 10 weeks ago, but it’s exciting.”
Tallahassee SC (3-1-1) vs. Mobile FC (3-1-1)
When/Where: Saturday, 8 p.m. at FSU main sports complex on St. Augustine Street in College Town
Tickets: $7 for adults; Children 13 and younger are free; there are 300 bleacher seats and fans are encouraged to bring chairs