TRINITY — He encouraged his players to visit Pepin Stadium during last year's final four and again when the girls teams played there last week.
Mitchell coach Oscar Ubillus had played in a state semifinal and believed his players were on the cusp of a similar opportunity.
"Without saying it, that was our goal," Ubillus said of reaching the final four. "… You don't want to walk in for the first time on the day of the game."
Ubillus played defense for River Ridge in 1997, one of the Royal Knights' back-to-back final four teams. Both times, the Royal Knights were shut out by St. Thomas Aquinas in the state semifinals.
Ubillus celebrated his 18th birthday the day River Ridge lost to Aquinas the first time, 4-0. Sunday, he'll turn 31.
Does he still think about the game?
"All the time," Ubillus said. "They were better than us. Most of their starters went on to play D-I. … It showed. We hung with them. It was 1-0 at halftime, and eventually it got away."
His players, most of them seniors, have envisioned this opportunity since middle school. Most of them have played together for years. They've watched others reach final fours and witnessed some win championship medals.
"We've been talking about this since seventh grade," Mitchell defender Chris McVeigh said. "We never thought this would ever happen. Then all of the sudden it just did. It's pretty cool — final four."
Pembroke Pines Charter, also making its first final four trip, shares a similar story of a bunch of upperclassmen trying to tie a ribbon on a long journey.
Talk about Cinderella stories. The Jaguars won all three playoff games in overtime, including two in double overtime.
"To see all their hard work and their blood, sweat and tears pay off in the end, it's more than satisfying as a coach to see these kids finally get where they deserve," Jaguars coach Thomas Lemmon told the Miami Herald.
Mitchell's 1-0 win last week against Celebration vaulted it into the program's first final four. Preparations began with a bit of bad news. Junior Alejandro Motta, who was red-carded for a controversial slide tackle on Celebration's Jeremy Hong with 2:51 remaining, is suspended for the remainder of the season. That would amount to two games if Mitchell wins.
The potential impact?
"He's a starter for a reason, but there's not a big drop-off," Ubillus said. "Someone else has to step up. … He's a senior and he thought it would be just one game. The official word is a two-game suspension."
Another concern, aside from the fanfare, is the larger field. Mitchell extended its practice field and McVeigh said the defense quickly noticed it was out of place.
"We're used to a certain width," McVeigh said. "During practice we were not as far out as we should have been."
Midfielder Max Rockwell, who scored the winning goal against Celebration 10 minutes in, was sporting a new haircut Monday similar to the one of Egyptian soccer player Mohamed Zidan: love equals football.
"Everyone really wants it," Rockwell said. "If we can have our dedication spill over into the game, we'll be all right."
Izzy Gould can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 421-3886.