With just nine minutes separating them from a repeat trip to the state championship game, everything nearly fell apart for the Palmer Trinity boys’ soccer team in Saturday afternoon’s Class 1A state semifinal.
Palmer, nursing a one-goal lead over Lakeland Christian, was called for a foul in the box. When the ensuing penalty kick was converted, the Falcons were once again staring overtime in the face.
But Palmer, which spent all season learning what it’s like to play with a target on your back as a defending state champion, never panicked.
It paid off eight minutes into the first overtime when Nico Rey took a perfect crossing pass from Hermo Lopez and headed it home for what turned out to be the game-winner.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Great defense and ball control over the next 12 minutes of overtime preserved Palmer’s 2-1 win and another trip to DeLand, where the Falcons will defend their state title at 4 p.m. Thursday at Spec Martin Stadium against St. Pete Shorecrest Prep.
“I explained to the guys at the beginning of this season that if they thought it was tough getting to the state finals last year, just wait until they see what we’re up against this year being a defending state champion,” said Palmer head coach Eric Perri, who would be one to know first-hand as he won back-to-back state titles as a player for Varela in 2007 and 2008. “I think the last game might’ve helped us today (PT blew a 2-0 halftime lead to Sheck Hillel before winning in OT). I told them, don’t back down, to just keep playing our game, keep pressuring and just do what we do.”
After a scoreless first half, the Falcons (21-3-2) broke through with 29:09 left in regulation when Lopez, a freshman, broke loose in the middle and fired a shot from 15 yards out into the bottom right corner of the net.
Even though Ezequiel Cutin bounced one off the left post that would have put the Falcons up by two, it appeared the one goal might be enough until the whistle blew with 8:25 left and, much to the shock of Perri and his bench, a foul was called even though there appeared to be little contact.
Jake Cochran then converted the PK for the Vikings (15-6-1) to tie the game and ultimately set the stage for Lopez and Rey’s heroics.
“I was really just looking to be in the right place at the right time and Hermo gave me a great cross back in that I was able to get a clean head on,” said Rey. “There have been multiple times this season where we’ve lost leads including the last game against Hillel so mentally we know how to deal with that stuff so it just a matter of staying focused and going out there and doing our thing.”
Rey added: “This year has been tough because being a defending state champ, you play with a target on your back every time you suit up and go out on the field no matter who it is so to be honest, for us to be going back to DeLand this year is almost more amazing and satisfying than getting there last year.”
▪ Class 3A state semifinal - Plantation American Heritage 1, Tampa Jesuit 0 (5-4 PKs): It took 100 minutes of game action and six rounds of penalty kicks, but the Plantation American Heritage Patriots walked off their field knowing they’ll play one more game this season.
The host Patriots defeated Tampa Jesuit 5-4 in penalty kicks to clinch their spot in the Class 3A state championship and have a chance to win their seventh boys’ soccer state title.
Heritage (16-5-1), which won three road playoff games before hosting the state semifinal on Saturday, will face Daytona Beach’s Seabreeze in the championship match on Saturday at 7 p.m.