TAMPA PALMS — I feel for Freedom High's Eliot Toledo, though maybe I don't have to.
Eliot, whose family I know through neighborhood soccer, was one goal from glory Saturday night while playing for the 5A state championship.
The nicest kid you could ever meet, he drove his mother a little crazy in prior games by passing the ball, as instructed, instead of shooting it.
Mom, who spoke with me the morning of the big game, wanted him to score. "I'll pay him $20," she joked.
We always urge the younger players to shoot, shoot, shoot. "A shot on goal is as good as a goal," I tell the 6-year-olds.
It is and it isn't. Not when a state title is on the line.
I didn't get to the game but I followed the action online at tampabay.com. Eliot fired one up during the second half after seeing the Palm Harbor goalkeeper was out of position, according to blogger Bryan Burns. The goalie was scrambling to recover, so maybe Eliot rushed the shot.
It sailed over the crossbar. Eleven game minutes later it was all over.
Palm Harbor 2, Freedom 1.
Some things you should know about Eliot: Unlike athletes groomed in expensive travel leagues and Olympic training camps, Eliot grew up playing neighborhood ball. His uncles coached him, his teammates were cousins and family friends.
His style of play is swift and intelligent. I call it "playing soccer with your eyes." He'll survey the field, kind of like holding your breath before a dive. Then bing-bang-boom, he runs the ball through a hole and to the goal.
More remarkable is his character. I have never seen Eliot arrogant or disrespectful, never heard him cut down another player or utter a profanity. He's a favorite referee at the Saturday children's games.
A junior, he started the school year playing football. We oldsters would wince, seeing him in a neck or leg brace. "Go back to soccer," we would say.
When he did, it was fitting that he would ride this wave of victory. It was all the more dramatic, and the stakes that much higher, once the team upended rival Wharton, the 2008 champs.
A storybook ending seemed his due.
I called Eliot the Sunday after the game, knowing he would have spent the morning in church with his parents and three younger brothers and that he would have the good manners to take my call.
His mother had some words about the game atmosphere and officiating.
Here's what Eliot said:
"Our team was nervous. This was our first appearance in a state championship. We had butterflies in our stomach and it took us awhile to get our groove. Once we did, we just ran out of time."
Ah, but what about that shot?
He groaned. "I tried to tie the game. When I saw it go over, it was hard to take in but there was so much time left that I would not let it get me down. I was talked to after the game and they said I had nothing to feel sorry for as long as I left 110 percent on the field."
No need to worry about Eliot Toledo. He's not looking back at what might have been, but ahead to next year, when his squad will have the benefit of this experience. "I plan to try to bring my team back to the state championship," he said.
He will also be back as a referee on March 7, with his brothers and cousins, watching more kids take their shots.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.