TAMPA – New Orleans Jesuit’s Brian Barbera knew where he was going as he walked up from the center circle.
“I knew I was going that way the whole time,” Barbera said.
Barbera buried his penalty into the bottom right corner of the goal, giving the ESPN Rise No.5 Blue Jays a 4-3 penalty shootout victory against No.24 Melbourne in the final of the High School Soccer Classic after they had tied 1-1 through regulation at the Ed Radice Sports Complex on Wednesday afternoon.
Barbera followed teammates Alex Petrou, Patrick Culotta and Jordan Schwartz in converting from the spot, while Blue Jays goalkeeper Joe Hart made a pair of saves to give his side victory.
“You know, on paper last year we were ranked No.1 in the nation, and (Melbourne) was ranked No.2, so from that end of it we were saying ‘let’s go to an event like this so we can really see how good we are on the field,’ ” Blue Jays coach Hubie Collins said. “I think from that end of it I think it says a lot about these young men, about their character to come down here for five days before Christmas to come here and come out as champions. My hat goes off to those young men.”
Jesuit had taken the lead in the third minute, Culotta floating a cross into the penalty area from the right that was met by Petrou, who headed into the right corner of the net. Soon after, though, Melbourne settled down, and had the better of the play for the final 30 minutes of the half. Callum Wilson went close to tying the game, his turning right-footed drive from the top of the penalty area going off the top of the crossbar for a goal kick, as did Trey Collins, who had a shot go just wide of the right post.
Wilson was instrumental in the move that allowed the Bulldogs to tie the game in the 30th minute, latching onto a pass from Ryan Price before attacking the Blue Jays defense. As Wilson tried to cut past his marker, he was tackled, but the ball deflected off the defender, catching the goalkeeper stranded as the ball ricoched into the right corner of the net.
Wilson came close to giving the Bulldogs the lead before the break, again hitting the crossbar, the rebound being shepherded to safety by the Blue Jays defense.
“It felt like we were in control of the game, but obviously it doesn’t always help you score,” Wilson said. “It comes down to who can get the luckiest, really, when it comes down to taking penalties. Their goalkeeper did very well, he had a sweet game, stopped us quite a few times.”
While Wilson, and to a lesser extent Price, were able to find some space, the Bulldogs did a good job of limiting Jesuit’s Steven Cabos. Named the tournament’s offensive MVP, Cabos didn’t pose as great a threat in the final as he had in previous games, thanks in part to the work T.J. O’Toole, who put in a good man-marking job on the Blue Jays’ standout. Collins said he thought Cabos was tired after having played the bulk of the Blue Jays’ previous four games, but was impressed with the way the Bulldogs defended him.
“I think Melbourne did a helluva job shutting him down,” Collins said. “They didn’t allow him too many opportunities, I think he had maybe one or two strikes on goal, but creativity-wise he was limited, so fair play to them.”
The number of scoring chances lessened in the second half as both sides made defensive adjustments, Price seeing a shot drift wide late. That sent the game to a shootout, and the Blue Jays’ victory.
Melbourne was disappointed to fall, but after losing a large senior class believed its performance over the tournament would show how well the squad had reloaded this season.
“A lot of teams shrugged us off last year, saying we lost too many starters,” Wilson said. “It’s nice that we can still show that we’re stepping up as a team, that’s a nice feeling.”
As far as the Blue Jays were concerned, the victory was a big boost not only to them, but to Louisiana soccer.
“Louisiana doesn’t get a lot of respect, soccer-wise,” Barbera said. “For us to come and prove ourselves, it showed what we are all about. I think we proved ourselves, and earned respect.”