MELBOURNE -- A historic run for the Columbus boys soccer program continued on Friday afternoon.
The hurdle for the Explorers, having already won three consecutive overtime games in the regional playoffs, was an undefeated and No. 2-state-ranked Oviedo team in a Class 5A state semifinal game.
One more hurdle cleared.
Thanks to good solid defense, an early goal by team captain Danny Del Rio in the game’s eighth minute and a large contingent of noisy students who made the three hour trip north to root on their team, Columbus pulled out a 1-0 victory over Oviedo at Eastern Florida State College.
And with that, Columbus, which had only one regional playoff win in the program’s history before two weeks ago, finds itself in the 5A state championship game.
Now will come the biggest challenge of all as the Explorers will face No. 1-state-ranked and nationally ranked Boca Raton at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Boca, which survived a penalty kick shootout to defeat Tarpon Springs East Lake 3-2 (4-2) in its semifinal, brings a 24-1-2 record into the game, is in its fifth final four in the last six years and won the title in 2010.
“It’s a privilege to be in this situation,” Columbus coach Michael Stewart said.
“You have some 300-and something teams that started the season and here we are, one of the last two to be on the field so it’s a great place to be. I’m happy for the kids, they’ve worked hard to put themselves in this position and tomorrow we go for everything.”
Stewart watched as his team came out pushing the action hard early on.
Thanks to Del Rio and Columbus’ lightning-fast forward Eddie Diaz, the Explorers put major heat on Oviedo keeper Michael Scheraldi, including a point blank shot from Del Rio in the game’s third minute that Scheraldi made a diving save on.
But five minutes later, Stefano Dongo knocked a perfect pass from the left side over to the right side in front of the net that Oviedo defender Bobby Nance tried to head and clear out.
But the ball just cleared his head and Del Rio was waiting, right-footing it into the top left corner of the net.
“I saw the ball being pushed over to the left side of the field and Stefano dropped a perfect pass over to me on the right side,” Del Rio said. “I saw that their number five [Nance] was trying to head it out but as soon as the ball went over his head, I saw the keeper commit to the right and one-timed it to the left side.”
“We told the kids, let’s work to strike first,” Stewart said. “[Oviedo hasn’t] lost a game all year so let’s try and put them in an uncomfortable situation, make them be somewhere they haven’t been and see how they respond. Tactically, they match up well, a team pretty technically good, well-coached so do something they haven’t experience, make them have to dig themselves out and have them chase us rather than us having to chase them.”
Even with the lead, Columbus (19-3-4) continued to pressure Oviedo, which finished 20-1-3, for the remainder of the half, but could not get another one past Scheraldi. While Columbus didn’t go in a shell, they played the second half more conservatively and had less scoring chances.
“We had the one goal lead and were still trying to get number two but trying to do it smartly and not being reckless,” Stewart said. “That two-goal cushion would’ve been great and made for a lot less stress but we had to make sure we protected our net as well.”
The biggest play of the game — other than Del Rio’s goal — came just seven minutes before halftime.
That’s when Oviedo the Lions, having not had a single shot on goal to that point, had a golden opportunity to tie the game.
When an Oviedo centering pass found Sean Reilly 15 yards in front of the net, Columbus keeper Bryan Alvarez had already overcommitted to come out and couldn’t reach the ball. Reilly left-footed one headed straight for the back of the net.
But Columbus defender Casey Quintero saved the day when he got back in time to raise his left foot as high as it would go to block the shot before clearing the ball.
“The ball got played out wide and I went to go cover my right back,” Quintero said. “Then I saw the ball got played in and I didn’t quit on the play. I’ve been taught since I was little that if the keeper comes out, go in behind him and cover the net. If the ball is chipped, you need to be there to try and make a play and I saw the ball coming and managed to get a foot on it and clear it.”
Oviedo pressured heavily in the game’s final 20 minutes and appeared to have tied the game with just over 10 minutes left when Hank Morton took a long pass from the left side down in front of the right side of the net and knocked it in.
But the whistle blew the same instant he kicked the ball when Oviedo’s A.J. Bryan was called for a pushing foul disallowing the goal.
“It’s a great feeling that we’ve made it to this point and we’re really looking forward to tomorrow and the opportunity that will be in front of us,” Del Rio said. “We want to make Columbus soccer history.”