Being a top seed in the boys soccer region tournament didn’t guarantee a spot in Saturday night’s state semifinals. Of the 24 teams left in six classes, only 11 were No. 1 seeds.
Three area teams, however, did live up to their top rankings. Class 5A’s Jesuit, 3A’s Tampa Catholic and 2A’s Shorecrest are all still alive. And Mitchell, a No. 2 seed in 6A, knocked off top seed Palmetto to continue its season.
For Tampa Catholic and Shorecrest, getting to the state semis was somewhat expected. Both have plenty of returners from last year’s successful teams. Jesuit, however, is a bit of a surprise.
Better than expected
Jesuit coach Eric Sims lost 13 players from last year’s state semifinal team. He thought his Tigers would have to rebuild. So much so that he originally put his team in the secondary bracket of the prestigious Tampa Bay Invitational, which Jesuit hosts during the first week of January.
Then came a 2-0 win over always competitive Wiregrass Ranch in the final of the Champions League tournament in December. The league consists of area teams that are regulars in the postseason.
Sims needed to revisit his tournament bracket.
“Our rankings shot up, so I had to put us in the top flight," he said.
The Tigers did not slow down. They defeated Strake Jesuit of Houston in the opening round. Then they knocked off Cathedral of Los Angeles in the semifinals before losing to St. Pauls of Covington, La.
“(Beating Cathedral) solidified that this wasn’t a rebuilding team," Sims said. “This was a team that could make a pretty deep run."
Jesuit is 22-3-2. Only three players with significant playing time returned this season. Still, the Tigers are ranked 11th in the state by MaxPreps.
Freshman Kai Rodrigues and sophomore Christian Fairchild are newcomers who have bolstered the offense. Goalkeeper was a major concern for Sims, but senior Bryce Denick has been solid in net.
Junior Brandon Robertson was thrown in at central defense in the Champions League final and played so well that he hasn’t sat the bench since.
Seniors Lucas Gobea and Carson Bien are returners who have been the main scorers. And senior defender Robin Tionko also returns. But those players have mostly been surrounded by newcomers.
“At first it wasn’t easy," Tionko said. “We lost a lot of seniors. But it’s made us work harder. It’s been more of a grind. But after that game against Wiregrass Ranch, that’s when we knew we could do it."
A program fully formed
Tampa Catholic, meanwhile, never doubted its ability to go deep in the postseason. The Crusaders graduated six seniors, but only two started. One of them was top scorer Dominick Coniglio. But senior Tony Watson has filled the void.
Defenders Ryan Schinsky and Sean Siwek both return, and freshman Dylan Dana has played well. Senior goalkeeper Charlie Gembarowski has had few miscues in his first season starting.
“Once we started playing games and I saw that Charlie was doing well, then I knew we could probably put it together," coach Kevin McCarron said.
Tampa Catholic is 22-1-2, the best record in school history. It has a chance to win the school’s first state championship in soccer. That’s a big leap from a few years ago, when the Crusaders were just trying to be competitive in their district.
“We’ve kind of turned this into a program," McCarron said. “When I took this over 14 years ago, Tampa Catholic had soccer. It was a sport. Now I like to call it a program. Each year the expectations are there. Kids actually even come to Tampa Catholic to play soccer. We’ve never had that in the past."
A state regular
Shorecrest has also built itself into a program. The Chargers played for the Class A state championship last season. This will be their third straight semifinal match, all with coach Jason Montoya.
With a core of the players from last year returning, Shorecrest figured to be a tough team to beat again this season. The Chargers are 16-3-2, which includes two one-goal losses to Jesuit and Seminole, both playoff teams.
The defense has only allowed 15 goals and hasn’t given up a score in three region matches. Senior Max Consoni has scored 22 goals.
Montoya has had to shuffle his lineup for most of the season due to injuries and yellow card suspensions. In the region final Wednesday, he was without senior defender Will Hodgson due to a toe injury. Montoya said he will return Saturday.
With a slightly different lineup for most games, Montoya said his hope is to just survive and advance.
“Every single year we feel like we have to put the pieces together," Montoya said. “Our objective every time is to go 1-0. We don’t like to put any lofty goals on our team."
Mitchell is 19-5-4 and has won six straight. Travelling to Niceville on Saturday won’t be easy. The Eagles are 23-0-2 and ranked second in the state and fourth nationally by MaxPreps.
A stingy defense that has allowed 18 goals in 28 games will be tested. And the Mustangs will have to rely on top scorers Jordan Minaca and Aidan Meyer.
State boys soccer semis
Games at 7 p.m. Saturday unless noted.
6A: No. 2 Mitchell at No. 1 Niceville, 6
5A: No. 4 Jacksonville Stanton at No. 1 Jesuit
3A: No. 1 Jacksonville Bolles at No. 1 Tampa Catholic
2A: No. 5 Doral Divine Savior Academy at No. 1 Shorecrest