DELAND — Jesuit has one of the most storied boys soccer programs in Florida. The Tigers’ 112 playoff games and 83 postseason victories are the most in state history.
Despite all that success, Jesuit entered Saturday’s Class 5A final seeking its first state championship since 2001.
There are a number of things that can derail a title quest. Injuries. A tough matchup. Bad breaks.
Jesuit coach Eric Sims knows. He won a state title at the school in 1995 under legendary coach Bob Bauman. Sims then coached at Gaither for 12 seasons, leading the Cowboys to three state semifinal appearances before returning to lead his alma mater in 2013.
There were plenty of playoff teams, some on the verge of winning a title under Sims’ guidance in 19 seasons coaching high school soccer in Hillsborough County.
But never a state title. Until Saturday.
The Tigers ended years of frustrating postseason results, beating Pembroke Pines Charter 5-4 to claim what had been an elusive state championship.
By adding another title, Jesuit now has seven overall, tying the program with Plantation American Heritage and Miami Gulliver Prep for second-most in state history, two from joining Clearwater Central Catholic at the top of the list.
“The first one is always going to be the sweetest, regardless of which team I did it with; it’s great,” Sims said. “I’m just so impressed with this group of young men, and the people that they are, that they deserved this more than any other team I’ve ever coached.”
Last season’s Jesuit team was supposed to be the one to end the title drought. There were 14 seniors, all of whom had significant club experience and were mostly going off to play in college. That Tigers’ squad came close, losing to American Heritage 1-0 (5-4 in penalty kicks) in the state semifinals.
“Talent-wise, that was the best team I’ve ever coached at Jesuit and one of the best I’ve had overall,” Sims said.
Where did this season’s team stand? It was hard to tell, at least at the beginning of the season. Jesuit returned just three players who had any significant playing time: seniors Zach Board, Lucas Gobea and Robin Tionko.
Sims was not even sure if he would have every veteran back.
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This past spring, Board tore his anterior cruciate ligament. The injury sidelined the North Florida-bound forward for eight months.
“Graduating so much there were a lot of questions on who was playing where,” Sims said. “It was a gradual process over the season to try to figure out the pieces of the puzzle. It just kind of came together on its own. We had guys missing for this and that and whoever stepped in did the job.”
Board returned to the team in January. As his playing time increased, so did his confidence.
“I started minimal minutes, getting back into the speed of play,” Board said. “I gradually started playing longer. I started feeling better so I told Coach I was available for more minutes.
“I really thought I was going to miss my senior season. It’s the stuff of dreams.”
The Tigers figured everything out. The wins kept coming, first in the regular season, then in the playoffs.
In Saturday’s final, Board had a leading role. He scored three goals, the last with about 15 minutes remaining that turned out to be the winner. Gobea and Alex Medina added goals to round out the scoring for Jesuit (24-3-2).
Board’s third goal put the Tigers ahead 5-3. Still, Pembroke Pines kept rallying with one goal and several shots near the net or crossbars in the final minutes that could have tied the score.
All were thwarted by Jesuit senior keeper Bryce Denick, who has never played club and was not even added to the playoff roster a year ago.
“Everybody wrote us off at the beginning of the season,” Board said. “I think at the end of the day, last season hurt us a bit because we tried to rely on all that talent to win games. This year, we knew we had to fight because talent is not going to win you games every time — and it paid off.
“The stuff of dreams.”