Led by a 22-year-old rookie coach who spent much of the past four years on a ship in Japan, Coral Reef is one of the surprises of the girls’ soccer season.
After upsetting GMAC champion South Dade on Monday, the Barracudas (10-3-7) will play Palmetto (14-3) on Wednesday for the District 16-5A title at 4 p.m. at Tropical Park.
The Cudas beat South Dade 1-0 in double overtime on a goal by freshman Carina Rodriguez. It was only her second goal of the season, but it was huge.
The play was set up by sophomore forward Kylan Becker, whose speed and hustle drew a foul. Junior goalie Monique Salazar, who had the shutout, took the free kick from 35 yards out, and Rodriguez collected the rebound off a South Dade defender to end the long match.
“We were exhausted,” said Cudas coach Natasha Lopes, whose girls had played 98 minutes before getting the golden goal. “But I always tell the kids: ‘Your body can do more than what you think it can.’ ”
Lopes, who is an American of Brazilian descent, is proof of that. At age 17, she enlisted in the Navy and worked her way up to gunner’s mate second-class petty officer.
When she finished active duty in May, she moved to Miami, where she had some aunts and uncles.
Lopes had played high school soccer in Virginia but had little experience coaching beyond doing some camps.
Still, in September, she got the job at Coral Reef on her first try and quickly greeted 80 girls who tried out for the team.
Lopes selected 18 for the varsity and battled through a tough schedule, losing twice to South Dade and twice to Palmetto and tying highly regarded Gulliver.
Meanwhile, South Dade (15-2-2) was not quite 100 percent Monday.
Winning three matches in four days to take the GMAC title last week had taken a physical toll on the players, including top scorer Jade Hayes, who hurt her knee. She played through the injury Monday, logging close to 80 minutes.
Ironically, South Dade coach Erin Shelow works as a physical education teacher at Coral Reef and is very familiar with the Cudas program.
“I said all year that I didn’t want to see Coral Reef in the [district] semifinals,” Shelow said. “We outshot them 20-5 [on Monday], but they have a strong team. I’m not surprised.”