If there was ever a season when East Lake was supposed to make the Class 5A state tournament, this was not it.
The Eagles have been hit hard with injuries. Starters Tanner Young, Dino Papadopoulos, Bruno Scafidi and Taylor Yeretzian have been out for parts of or all of the postseason.
East Lake hasn’t had a home field since November due to re-sodding. So the Eagles have been on the road for more than two months, including the district tournament at Alonso and all three region games.
And about those region games.
East Lake had to play at Sarasota Riverview in the opening round due to a district final loss to Steinbrenner. A hard-fought 3-1 win set up a rematch at Steinbrenner.
The Eagles built a 3-1 lead, watched it slip away in regulation, then got a goal from Alejandro Gonzalez in overtime, his first of the season, to advance.
Against Newsome in the region final, Pierre Goris scored in the second half, and East Lake survived a furious attack in the final seven minutes to hang on. Oh, and that included a Newsome penalty kick that careened off the post with three minutes to play.
Now comes a state semifinal against Boca Raton on Friday in Melbourne. The injured players will not return, but so far East Lake has the look of a team of destiny.
“…We have had a lot of factors to overcome,” coach Alex Stenson said. “We’ve been on the road and we’ve lost a lot of players. But the boys have done a really good job of hanging in there.”
For East Lake, it starts with senior Josh Page. The forward, who transferred to the school before last season, has 30 goals and six assists. In his two years, he has 96 goals.
But it wasn’t his goal scoring that helped the Eagles (19-3-1) in regionals.
“What I’m proud about Josh is how hard he has worked,’’ Stenson said. “He’s a striker, but against Steinbrenner he came back and defended corner kicks and did whatever he could. He threw his body on the line. He was aching, but he wants it so bad. He’s a real winner.’’
Then there is junior midfielder Goris, who has stepped up with nine goals, including the winner against Newsome. Goris did not play last season due to academy club soccer obligations.
Stenson said players like junior midfielder Hank Klein, sophomore midfielder Kevin Grywczynski and senior midfielder Gonzalez have stepped in ably for the injured players.
“Those guys have come through for sure,’’ Stenson said.
And while the talent level is not surprising, the fact that Stenson remained the head coach is.
A longtime club coach, Stenson figured he’d coach high school for one year and leave.
“That was my intention,’’ he said. “When I was a club coach about 10 years ago, I always hated high school soccer. A lot of the (high school) coaches were teachers and they really didn’t know what they were doing. I had a fantastic (club) team at Countryside one year and when they came back (from high school season) 11 of them were hurt. I had a bad taste in my mouth.
“But there are some really good guys involved in it recently. The standard is a lot better. And I think the nicest thing is there is a good atmosphere at the games. You don’t get that at club games.’’
Now comes one last road trip. Stenson expects more tense moments in a season full of them.
“It has been nerve-racking,’’ he said. “But it’s also been a lot of fun.”
Class 5A semifinal
Who: East Lake (19-3-1) vs. Boca Raton (20-1-2)
When/where: 5:30 p.m. Friday. Eastern Florida State College, Melbourne.
At stake: The winner will play Oviedo or Miami Columbus on Saturday at 5:30 for the state championship.
Players to watch: East Lake — F Josh Page (30 goals), M Pierre Goris (nine goals, four assists), M Miguel Silva (five goals, four assists). Boca Raton — F Tomer Bitton (27 goals, 16 assists), M Sebastian Elney (18 goals, 20 assists), M Gustavo Fernandez (12 goals, seven assists).
Fast facts: East Lake has advanced to the state tournament only one other time in school history, 1998. Boca Raton won the state championship in 2010 and has made the state tournament three of the past four years …Page needs four goals to reach 100 in his two-year career at East Lake …Elney is a member of the U-18 U.S. national team and has college offers from UCLA, Clemson and Michigan. Bitton has been a trial player for Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv and Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid.