Edwin Mcfarlane leaned inward against the fence. Caleb Acosta sat down at the post of the goal and didn’t move for three minutes. Cristian Sanchez slammed the ground with his fist sobbing uncontrollably.
All three seniors had played their last high school game. Coach Daniel Chong walked over to try and console each one of them.
That was the scene at Eastern Florida State College on Wednesday afternoon for the SLAM Academy boys soccer team after a 2-0 loss to Lakeland Santa Fe Catholic in a Class 1A state semifinal.
A magical Cinderella journey for the Titans, one that they were not prepared to see end, had indeed reached its final chapter.
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A program in only its second year of existence and first competing in a district that had left plenty of teams in its wake, rolling through the district and regional playoffs including favored Scheck Hillel in the regional semis, had now been left in Santa Fe’s wake as the Crimson Hawks (21-3-3) move on to the 1A state title game to take on Maitland Orangewood Christian on Thursday afternoon.
“This just hurts so much right now,” said Mcfarlane. “We worked so hard for this, so hard to get here. Since Day one, nobody expected us to come this far. We’re a tiny school, nobody knew about us but I guess they know about us now.”
“This is the worst I’ve ever felt in my life,” said Sanchez, barely audible. “I’ve never felt so close to one team. We were all brothers and family and really thought we would take this all the way. I said it from the beginning that I knew we would make it far, I just didn’t know how far.”
After battling Santa Fe dead even for the first 60 minutes of the game, things went south very quickly for the Titans.
That’s when the Crimson Hawks, in the span of just 36 seconds, scored both goals. And just like that, with 19:27 left in regulation, SLAM (16-6-1) found itself in a two-goal deficit it could not climb out of.
First came a corner kick for Santa Fe’s Tim Ober who kept it out of the air, hitting a low grounder that made it to the front of the net. Joey Dotson flicked it with his left foot to Frezghi Noel on the left side who knocked it in after SLAM keeper Jefry Padilla overcommitted to the other side to make it 1-0 with 19:53 left.
Following the water break, the Crimson Hawks came right back on the attack and, perhaps still a little stunned from the first goal, loose defense by the Titans allowed Noel to get free down deep. He then redirected a shot to his left that Juan Morales knocked in to make it 2-0.
“[Santa Fe] got a nice set piece off a corner kick and I told them that [Dotson] was their danger player and he got the flick-on and turned it into a goal.,” said Chong. I’m not sure if we were a little stunned by that first goal but then they come right back a few seconds later and pop another one in and it put us in a hole we couldn’t get out of.”
“Just a couple of tiny mistakes cost us big-time,” Mcfarlane said. “We blinked and just like that we were down two goals. I couldn’t believe it.”
After a non-descript first half in which neither team enjoyed a quality chance, the Titans got that chance just one minute into the second half when Acosta managed to steal a Santa Fe cross pass which left him one-on-one with keeper Ryan Santiago. Santiago charged straight out forcing Acosta to maybe shoot before he wanted to and he rifled one just over the top right corner of the net.
“It would’ve given us the lead and the whole game would’ve changed,” said Acosta. “The ball was a little long so I just tried to tip it in, I couldn’t do anything else. I had hopes that we were going to make it to the finals and it hurts right now like it’s never hurt but nothing will take away what we accomplished this year. I love all these guys and it was an honor and a privilege to play with them all.”