Dash to DeLand highlighted by trio of first-time champions

By Official Florida FC

This year’s Dash to DeLand may not have concluded how many expected. But, it made for a number of thrilling games at last week’s FHSAA soccer finals.

Only two teams in the final statewide top 10 made the finals – and neither Plantation American Heritage nor Viera were the favorite entering the playoffs.

A topsy-turvy playoff season culminated with three programs winning their first boys soccer state championship.

Though none of the three finalists from Southwest Florida took home a trophy, Fort Myers, Naples and Fort Myers Canterbury acquitted themselves well considering the turmoil their communities faced before and during the high school soccer season.

Class 7A: Clermont East Ridge 3, Lithia Newsome 0

East Ridge was the No. 5 seed in its own region, without its best scorer for most of the state playoffs and, yet, walked away with the Class 7A state championship.

Amir Taylor scored two goals and assisted Maxwell Kempany’s opening goal to help the Knights (19-3-1) win their first FHSAA title.

“The beauty of this team is we are able to interchange guys in or out,” said East Ridge soccer coach John Quirk afterward. “I don’t have a problem going five, six deep on my bench. These go in, they perform. They know their job. They know their role. They perform it at a high level.”

Quirk has been on the touchline for 13 years. East Ridge had a pair of disappointing losses in regional finals in 2021 and 2022. But, the senior-led squad used its combination of flair, midfield bite and long-ball tactics to take home the title.

Newsome was the only Tampa Bay program to make the boys soccer finals. All season long, the Wolves (21-3) used an old-school 4-4-2 with a big forward and a small forward to score goals in bunches. The tactic did not work against an East Ridge side that not only won the long balls, but the second balls as well.

“To just (allow) one goal over the last five matches, that speaks volumes about our goalkeeping, our team defense,” Quirk said. “I’m really proud of the guys.”

Class 6A: Viera 4, Fort Myers 2

Viera capped off an unbeaten season with a frenetic, fast-paced flurry in Saturday’s Class 6A final.

The Hawks (21-0-1) held off Fort Myers and its irrepressible forward Ricardo Louis with intensity and audacious goals.

Max May opened the scoring in the 11th minute with a right-footed effort that found the far corner. Five minutes later, Yordan Torres tried a speculative effort from 50 yards. He found the roof of the goal to make it 2-0.

As a Fort Myers supporter would say later in the game: “We’ve been through a hurricane. This is nothing. Let’s go!”

And, so the Green Wave did. Fort Myers changed its tactics from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3. It’s a move head coach Chris Reid said allowed them to pressure Viera more as the Hawks tried to build out the back.

“They came out really passive and they weren’t pressing as much,” May said. “The ability to let them press us, bring them up and get the ball in behind, put pressure on their back line was the game changer.”

However, the Hawks know all too well that a two-goal lead in the state final is not safe.

Viera trailed Doral Academy 2-0 in the 2022 final before rallying to tie the game. Doral found a winner then. Saturday, Viera ensured the Green Wave didn’t have the fairytale ending to a challenging but rewarding season.

Louis’ movement and dribbling caused problems all afternoon when his teammates found his feet. He had the pace to sprint past Viera’s defenders and the strength to hold them off when his back was toward goal. He used both to draw a trio of penalty kicks within 20 seconds of each other in the 31st minute.

“This team always has a heart. That’s what they pride themselves on, playing with a lot of heart,” Reid said. “It showed all throughout the season. Whenever they get down, they always come back.”

Fort Myers missed its first penalty kick in the 26th minute. When Lewis drew his second and third penalties 20 seconds apart, he stepped up and converted both.

But, Fort Myers couldn’t get to halftime.

May admitted his team was stunned after Louis’ equalizer.

The Green Wave fouled May about 40 yards from goal in the 35th minute. He took the corresponding free kick and found fullback Alex Canlas at the back post. Canlas’ looping header flew into the top corner.

“It’s everything. It’s changing momentum,” May said of Canlas’ goal. “They came out, got three (penalties), two of which they converted into goals and that put us on the back foot a little. Being able to strike back shows resilience, a great show of character and was what we needed to do.”

Viera controlled tempo and possession from the opening moments of the second half. It culminated in Torres’ Olimpico in the 48th minute. His inswinging corner from the left, curled into the corner to give the Hawks a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Fort Myers was in the state final for the first time in 24 years. The Green Wave represented a community that was devastated by a hurricane and did not flinch against the only unbeaten boys soccer team in Florida.

The Green Wave were devastated when the final whistle blew.

“From the start of the season I told these kids we are building memories,” Reid said. “This is a memorable season for them. They built a lot of memories. They are going to have friendships that are going to last forever, for as long as they can remember.”

Class 5A: Plantation American Heritage 3, Naples 1

American Heritage (19-1-2) overcame an early goal to win their eighth state championship in school history.

Juan Otero’s hat trick powered the Patriots to the title. His first came moments before halftime in the 39th minute. He also scored in the 60th minute and again in the 77th to cap his varsity career in grand style.

Otero, who finished with 20 goals and six assists, scored multiple goals only four times this season – two were against Naples. His brace in the Dec. 12 meeting between the two programs helped American Heritage win 3-2.

Naples (16-5-3) was making its first appearance in the FHSAA finals in 28 years. Freshman Ty Collins will always have a story to tell about scoring the opening goal in a state final.

Class 4A: Gulliver Prep 3, Orlando Bishop Moore 2

Gulliver Prep (16-4-2) won its eighth title in school history. Cosme Salas, Franco Garcia-Morillo and Tomas Sciarra scored the goals that gave the Raiders an insurmountable lead.

Bishop Moore (23-3-1) scored two consolation goals, including one in the 79th minute to set up a grandstand finish.

Class 3A: Winter Park Trinity Prep 0, Fort Lauderdale University School 0 (5-3 PKs)

Trinity Prep won its first FHSAA boys soccer title after slowing down one of Florida’s leading goal scorers in the final.

University School’s Rafael Guerra entered the final with 35 goals and 20 assists. He finished with three shots on goal, but no efforts that beat Saints keeper Shane Wright.

Mason Dowdy, Caden Clifton, Ryan Avallone, Henry Brown and Wright all converted their penalty kicks for Trinity Prep.

Thursday’s shutout was the 10th time in 18 matches the Saints (15-2-1) posted a clean sheet.

Class 2A: Hobe Sound Pine School 2, Fort Myers Canterbury 1

The matchup between the 2021 and 2022 state champions did not disappoint. Pine School retained its claim on the championship with its Feb. 23 win over Canterbury (18-4-2).

Maxwell Charles and Christian Kerr scored for the Raiders (14-3-2).

More importantly for the Pine School was it kept Canterbury leading scorer Riley Johnson off the scoresheet. Johnson scored a brace in the 2021 final and Canterbury’s opener in last year’s final as it tried to get back in the game. Pine held him to two shots on goal in his final varsity game.

The Pine School is 31-3-2 over the last two seasons and outscored opponents 175-18 during that stretch.