Walking underneath the stands at Lockhart Stadium after his team's 1-0 win over Jesuit on Friday afternoon, Wharton forward Ryan Asare-Bediako shook his head when asked about the Wildcats' unpredictable late-season surge.
"It's amazing how far we've come," Asare-Bediako said.
Truer words have never been spoken.
After a loss to Gaither on Jan.11, Wharton was 8-5-2, hadn't had a healthy roster in weeks and was entering the district tournament as the fourth seed. Today at 2:30 p.m., it will play for the state title.
"It's surreal," Wharton coach Scott Ware.
Few could have predicted Friday's outcome.
Jesuit, which was making its 14th final four appearance and had hopes of winning a seventh state title, entered with a 27-2 record, No. 5 national ranking, a slew of scorers and a defense that had allowed only 13 goals. Wharton (17-5-2) was playing in the state semifinals for the first time.
The winning score, which came off the foot of defender Matt Noble, was every bit as improbable as the Wildcats' playoff run. On a free kick from 20 yards out in the 69th minute, Noble attempted a pass to teammate Joe Layton. Layton couldn't get to the ball, but it kept rolling and didn't stop until it found the net for Noble's third goal of the season.
"I was surprised," Noble said. "And I was really excited.
The importance of Wharton's defensive play, particularly in the first 20 minutes, had as much to do with the victory as Noble's goal. Jesuit created one scoring opportunity after another early on, yet Wharton somehow kept the Tigers off the board.
"We had some missed opportunities," Jesuit coach Bob Bauman said. "Then we got a little sloppy with the ball. The times we played our game, we were dangerous."
After Jesuit's initial push, the game belonged to Wharton.
The defense clamped down and the offense sprang to life. Asare-Bediako, Layton and Matt Montgomery put constant pressure on the Jesuit defense; Layton just missed a shot attempt in the 64th minute when he hit the post.
Five minutes later, Noble scored. Eleven minutes after that, the Wildcats, who only a month ago were little more than an afterthought, had secured a spot in the final.
"We've come this far," Asare-Bediako said, "we're not going to give up now."
Wharton 1 Jesuit 0
Class 2A final
Who: Tampa Prep (26-2-2) vs. Jacksonville Providence (19-6-2)
When/where: Noon today; Lockhart Stadium, Fort Lauderdale
Five things to know:
1. Tampa Prep is trying to win its third championship. The other titles came in 2005 and 2007.
2. Providence is playing in its first final.
3. The Terrapins own a nine-game winning streak. Providence has won six straight.
4. Tampa Prep is 17-1 in the postseason since 2005.
5. Tampa Prep has outscored opponents 101-20 this season.
Class 5A final
Who: Wharton (17-5-2) vs. St. Thomas Aquinas (22-5-4)
When/where: 2:30 today; Lockhart Stadium, Fort Lauderdale
Five things to know:
1. In four playoff games, Wharton has allowed one goal ... and scored 10.
2. The Wildcats have won nine straight games.
3. Half of Wharton's all-time playoff wins (eight) have come this season.
4. The Wildcats have not been scored upon more than once in a game since Jan. 11.
5. Wharton keeper Scott Montgomery received a cut on his right leg after a Jesuit player ran into him Friday. Despite walking with a slight limp after the game, Montgomery said he would play today.