TAMPA — On an overcast Saturday afternoon, Land O’Lakes coach Mark Pearson accepted the Class 3A runnerup trophy with a silver medal around his neck and a solemn look on his face.
“I’ve had a runnerup trophy,” Pearson said.
What he and the Gators don’t yet have is a state title, a drought that continued after Plantation American Heritage’s 3-1 victory at USF’s Corbett Soccer Stadium. Pearson’s Gators also finished second in 1999.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” senior Nathan Dalton said, “that we made it all the way here and lost.”
Land O’Lakes (23-4-2) put up a fight. After Luis Betancur gave the Patriots (26-0-3) a 1-0 lead with his eighth-minute goal, the Gators answered immediately.
Josh Davis’ cross found Miguel Laliberte’s head in the 10th minute. Laliberte knocked the ball to senior Adam Weinstock, who headed it into the net to tie the score.
“Who would have thought our right back would have scored the only goal of the game?” Pearson said.
It wasn’t enough to rescue a Land O’Lakes defense that finally cracked after allowing only one goal in its past four games.
Betancur found Ricardo Castro 39 seconds into the second half for the go-ahead score. Betancur — one of ESPN’s top 150 juniors in the country — booted a goal in five minutes later off of his left foot. His 35th goal of the year clinched his team’s fifth state championship since 2004.
“I think our heads went down,” Gators senior Jake Frahm said.
Land O’Lakes had 10 second-half shots but couldn’t get past goalkeeper Juan Cano (nine saves). The Gators had a free kick in the 59th minute when Cano took down Dalton just outside the box, but they couldn’t convert. The penalty was one of six yellow cards given to American Heritage.
Land O’Lakes had another great look with an indirect kick inside the box with 12 minutes left, but Andy Garcia’s shot hit Cano’s leg to end the threat.
“They shut out Josh. They shut out Andy,” Pearson said. “They did a very good job. And what they didn’t shut out as a defense, their goalkeeper made some excellent saves on.”
Land O’Lakes made strides this winter. The Gators bounced back after their seven-year streak of district titles ended to advance to their first region final since 2005, and they were state qualifiers for the first time since 2000. But that hardly mattered to them Saturday.
Pearson slightly raised his second runnerup trophy in 15 years to the crowd before handing it to his right, down the row of silver medalists. Most players stared at the ground as they passed the trophy off to their teammate, from one solemn face to the next.
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org