TAMPA – New Orleans Jesuit came to the High School Soccer Classic with big expectations.
“This was one of our major goals in the season,” Blue Jays coach Hubie Collins said. “We knew we were coming to this even four months ago, before our season even began. I know our players were very focused on it, we knew there was going to be great competition down here, we knew we were going to play some great teams, and that’s what we wanted to do.”
On Tuesday night, the Blue Jays, who edged up to No.5 in the ESPN Fab 50 earlier in the day, advanced to the Classic final, a 2-0 victory against Countryside setting up a game against No.24 Melbourne on Wednesday at noon at the Ed Radice Sports Complex.
The victory could have been a far easier one for the Blue Jays, who struggled with their finishing throughout the game, Patrick Culotta having a good chance saved and Alex Petrou putting the rebound wide early. Blue Jays standout junior Steven Cabos gave his side the lead in the 29th minute, though, rifling home a shot from 25 yards into the right corner of the net.
The Cougars had been concerned about fatigue, having played a tough game earlier against Palm Harbor to advance to the semifinals, and that proved to be a valid concern as they struggled for the most part to find a rhythm, allowing Jesuit numerous opportunities.
The Blue Jays were unable to take advantage of them, though, and with just under 15 minutes to go the Cougars almost tied the game as Mike Lion’s sweeping pass from the center found an unmarked Zack Shriver breaking in on the left. Shriver moved in and juked past the goalkeeper, only to see his shot find the side-netting.
“Nine time out of 10 he finishes that ball, he’s a solid player,” Countryside assistant coach Colby Beckman said. “Unfortunately, I thought tonight wasn’t right for us, it wasn’t our night.”
The Cougars continued to press forwards, and gave the Blue Jays some anxious moments at the back as they went to three attackers to press for the equalizer. With 10 minutes to go, there was a brief stoppage as one of the sets of floodlights went out on the field, but the lights didn’t go out on the Cougars hopes until four minutes remained. After a foul just inside the Countryside half was quickly taken by the Blue Jays down the right to Andrew Moise, he got in behind the Cougars defense, and centered across the top of the six-yard box to Culotta, who controlled and then shot home to put the game away.
“I was a little bit nervous at the end of the game because they put us under a little bit of pressure,” Collins said. “They put three players up top and started playing a bit more direct, and our defenders, who really didn’t have a whole lot to defend all game, had to scramble a little bit more in those last five, 10 minutes, but I thought they handled the pressure well.”
If the Blue Jays are to take home the title, they will have to stave off the pressure Melbourne’s free-flowing attack will offer as the Bulldogs brought an end to the run of Orlando Bishop Moore with a 5-0 victory. Callum Wilson scored twice for the Bulldogs, while Ryan Price was instrumental in helping create chances for Melbourne, last season’s Class 6A Florida state champion. Bulldogs coach Jerry McCabe said Wilson and Price’s strength made them hard to handle defensively.
“They’re both very strong on the ball, and you can’t move them, they can hold it up under pressure,” McCabe said. “That allows us to get the midfield in on the attack. Ryan did a very good job, good first touch, keep the possession, keep the ball moving tonight, held it up long enough for guys to make runs, and then Callum was getting on the other end of things and finishing things off.”
So now, the two teams that most expected to meet in the final will get the opportunity to face off for the championship.
“Once we decided to come here, we wanted to make it as far as we could,” Collins said. “Obviously, we’re delighted to be in the final.”