Seconds before the start of the Class 5A regional final against Cypress Bay, team captain Danny Del Rio of Columbus gathered his teammates for a huddle.
“Cypress Bay is a three-time state champion,” said Del Rio, who usually gives his team’s pregame hype speech, “but tonight they are leaving this field as regional runner-ups.”
That was pretty big talk from a Columbus team that had never been past the regional semifinals.
But Del Rio, who got the game’s first goal, and Eddy Diaz, who got the game-winner in overtime, made those words sound prophetic, helping to end Cypress Bay’s season with a 2-1 win.
Next up for Columbus (20-4-5) is its first-ever trip to state in boys’ soccer. The Explorers will play Oviedo (21-0-3) at 3 p.m. Friday in Melbourne, and Del Rio and Diaz will again be two of the game’s key figures.
Neither is very big — Columbus coach Michael Stewart estimates that Diaz, a junior forward, is 5-9 and Del Rio, a senior midfielder, is 5-7 ½ — but both have blazing speed.
Del Rio said he and Diaz have had informal races, with each winning his share. But, with the ball at his feet, Diaz is the clear winner.
“I haven’t seen anyone on any team faster than Eddy with the ball,” Del Rio said. “Eddy is the most talented player on our team — no doubt.”
Diaz and Del Rio are a disruptive duo when it comes to opposing defenses. Diaz leads the team with 17 goals, and Del Rio is second with 15.
“Danny has phenomenal leaping ability,” Stewart said. “Eddy has unbelievable skill and technical ability. He’s deadly, putting the ball where he wants it.”
Diaz is the less vocal of the two, and he admits that Del Rio’s pregame speech on the night of the Cypress Bay game left him with mixed emotions.
“I was probably happy, but I was also thinking: ‘We haven’t done it yet. We have to prove it. We can’t just talk,’ ” Diaz said. “It added more pressure on us, but in a good way.”
Diaz and Del Rio joined the team three years ago, during Stewart’s second season as coach. That’s when most of the current players came on board — only senior midfielder Alejandro Pita remains from Stewart’s first team four years ago.
The progress had been slow before this season. In fact, the past two years ended without making it to regionals.
This season, though, came major breakthroughs — Columbus’ first district title in 25 years followed by the first trip to state.
It hasn’t been easy — Columbus has needed overtime to win its past four games — but the Explorers have rallied around each other.
“Danny always tells us that he would run back [on defense] for any of us,” Diaz said. “If any of us fall, we will never give up on each other. It’s a brotherhood.”
Del Rio said the other kids at Columbus have been supportive verbally, but it wasn’t until this playoff winning streak that they starting coming to the games.
“We had to earn their support,” Del Rio said. “But in the last game against Cypress Bay, we had more fans there than they did. Respect is earned, not given.”
On Friday, Columbus will try to earn some more — right after Del Rio’s gives his next pregame pep talk.