Belen Jesuit midfielder Tavish Rice momentarily lost his cool Friday afternoon.
He was irate during what was at times a physical, frustrating game for the Wolverines, who dominated their Region 4-4A final against visiting Stuart South Fork and yet found themselves in a tie game and short a player due to a red card.
Rice regained his composure, and with less than two minutes left in regulation, punched Belen’s ticket to the state final four.
Rice blasted the ball into the back of the net from point-blank range to give Belen a 2-1 victory over South Fork that clinched the Wolverines’ first trip to state since 2011.
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“I just believe in my teammates and how hard we worked all year for this,” Rice said. “I had no doubt we were going to win this. We know what it’s like to fight until the end and we know this is our year.”
The winning score was set up by Belen striker Francisco de la Camara, who headed the ball off a free kick. After the header was blocked, a perfectly-positioned Rice was there to bury the rebound before the Bulldogs’ keeper or defenders could react.
Belen (25-0-2), ranked No. 9 nationally by USA Today, will take on either Melbourne or Auburndale Thursday in a Class 4A state semifinal likely at 6:30 p.m. at Melbourne High. Those two teams play their regional final Saturday at 4 p.m.
“The passion and the spirit of these players is something beyond measure,” Belen coach Tanger Mendonca said. “Things weren’t going their way, but they never stopped.”
Belen controlled possession and had a major 16-2 advantage in shots on goal over South Fork (16-4-2).
De la Camara gave Belen a 1-0 lead scoring in the 30th minute of the first half to bring his season total to 54 goals - second only to former Ransom Everglades star Nico Hurtado’s 61 in 2012 for the county’s single-season record.
South Fork made the best of its opportunity to put some traffic in front of Belen keeper Alejandro Pujals, tying the match with 33 minutes left in the second half.
Things got dicey at that point as Belen’s Diego Puig-Corve was given a red card for something he said to the official and the Wolverines were forced to play the remaining 30 minutes of the match one player short. The disadvantage didn’t deter Belen from putting several more shots on goal down the stretch ending with Rice’s game-winner.
▪ Region 4-5A final - Cypress Bay 2, Varela 1 (2 OT): The Lightning’s discipline and ability to maintain its structure within its offensive system is something coach Colin Ilgner values about his team.
But when Cypress Bay earned a man advantage following a red card issued to Varela early in the second half, Ilgner ordered his team to press their advantage. The strategy resulted in Matias Pieschacon kicking home a loose ball in front of the net in the second overtime period that sent the Lightning (21-0-2) back to state for the fifth time in six seasons.
“I wasn’t expecting the rebound, but the center back for them touched and I’m just glad I was able to get the ball in,” Pieschacon said. “We knew Varela would be a challenge, and I got nervous when they scored. We usually start late, but we get the job done.”
Pieschacon’s 17th goal of the season came off midfielder Jake Fuhrman’s 19th assist and gave Cypress Bay, which is also receiving votes in the USA Today national Top 10, a chance to make it 5-for-5 at state since 2011. The Lightning will play Winter Park next Friday in a Class 8A state semifinal at Melbourne High.
Cypress Bay defeated Varela (11-6-2) for the second consecutive season in the regional finals. The Vipers, however, felt more confident than going into last year’s 5-1 loss, and took a 1-0 edge early in the second half on a goal by Luis Peralta that was assisted by Luis Alvarez in the 52nd minute. It took the Lightning only six minutes to answer as William Fiero converted off a rebound and tied the match.
Things got heated when a confrontation between the two teams resulted in the red card ejection of Varela’s Chahti Haitam. The incident left the Vipers with an even tougher task of defending Cypress Bay’s forwards, who put together numerous chances throughout the match.
The Vipers, who graduate 11 seniors, dropped four of their first seven matches this season, but recovered late in the season.
“I didn’t think it was fair because if you see what one player does, they need to see what the other did also,” Varela coach Juan Carlos Monge said. “But it is what it is and we paid the price. I’m still so proud of our kids for coming back this season after we struggled early.”
▪ Region 4-2A final - Ransom Everglades 2, Palm Beach Gardens Benjamin 1 (OT): Andrew Geraghty’s goal five minutes into overtime propelled the Raiders (22-4) to their first state final four appearance since 1979. Geraghty buried the winner off a deflected free kick by Juan Rizo-Patron as Ransom secured the road victory.
Carlos Esber tied the game in similar fashion with roughly 10 minutes in regulation off a deflected shot by Alex Stuart. Ransom will play Orlando Bishop Moore Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. in a Class 2A state semifinal at Melbourne High School.
▪ Region 4-3A final - Immokalee 4, Mourning 1: The Sharks (14-4-2) scored their lone goal on a second-half penalty kick and finished their best season in school history with their first appearance in the regional finals.