Like many of Gulliver’s girls’ soccer players this season, senior defender Kai-Lin Hernandez feels like she’s logged in as much time in the team’s training room as she has on the soccer field.
“I live in there,” Hernandez said. “We’ve had a bunch of players get hurt this year and fight back, but when we show the kind of heart we do on the field, it makes everyone play harder.”
Hernandez’s timely goal late in the first half gave the Raiders enough of a cushion to hang on for a 2-1 victory over Palm Beach Benjamin in a Class 2A state semifinal at Gulliver Prep on Friday afternoon.
The Raiders (21-0-4) secured their second trip to the state championship match in three seasons and will play Ocala Trinity Catholic on Friday at 8 p.m. at Melbourne High School.
Benjamin (21-1-1) fell short of making it to the state final for the first time, but made its first state semifinal appearance in school history.
“If you look at the physical toll this team has taken this year, they’ve done such an amazing job of fighting through it all,” Gulliver coach Everton Edwards said. “We’re down to 11 players, and we often practice with only seven or so because some need the rest due to injuries. Our training staff has been incredible. Without them helping the girls, we wouldn’t have made it this far.”
Gulliver has played without sophomore midfielder Khara Vassell, who sustained a season-ending injury in recent weeks.
The injury list has increased in the playoffs.
Eighth-grader Samantha Earle, who had key goals in previous regional playoff wins, was out with an ankle injury and is still not guaranteed to return to action for the state final.
Freshman defender Jenna Griffiths’ face embodied Gulliver’s toughness.
In the second half, Griffiths collided with a Benjamin player and was cut under her left eye. A few minutes later, Griffiths was back in, despite having the left side of her face stained with blood, and her cheek and eyebrow swollen. She finished the match.
“Oh my, look at [Griffiths’] face,” Edwards said as he watched his team come off the field after shaking hands with Benjamin players. “That shows you the grit these players have shown.”
The Raiders survived a near comeback by Benjamin in the second half. Kali Chaplin cut Gulliver’s lead to 2-1 on a goal in the first minute of the second half.
But Raiders goalkeeper Sophia Trujillo kept Benjamin from earning the equalizer with four timely saves, including one on a close-range shot by sophomore Natalia Newman in the 68th minute.
Hernandez’s goal followed another first-half goal by senior forward Madeline Intriago, one of the team’s top strikers.
Gulliver completed a perfect season in 2011 winning the Class 3A title, which was the first in 18 years by a Miami-Dade County girls’ soccer team.
Hernandez, who recently committed to High Point University in North Carolina, was not on that championship team. Last year, she sustained a torn meniscus, was unable to play down the stretch for the Raiders, and watched their season end in the regional finals against Delray American Heritage.
“This is what we’ve been working for since last season, and it feels great to be a part of it this time as a senior,” Hernandez said. “I wanted to be there to help my teammates this time around.”