Mariner captures regional soccer title with 7-0 win over Nature Coast Tech
The Mariner High School boys soccer team turned in a complete performance from start to finish Wednesday night to punch its ticket to the state semifinals as the Tritons defeated Nature Coast Tech 7-0 on their way to the 4A Region 2 title.
Senior standout Leo Perez recorded a hat trick in the win — the other goals coming from Esteban Orjuela, Santi Guerrero and two from freshman Marcel Tovar.
This marked the first time since 2003 that a Mariner (24-4-1) boys soccer team has made the final four. In recent years, the team has made it to this point, only to find heartbreak. This year, the Tritons are writing a new story.
“They’ve bonded together and they’re having fun together and working hard,” said Triton head coach Martin Cardenas. “They’re getting things done that the other teams couldn’t do. I’m glad they jumped that hurdle because it started to sting a little bit getting here (regional finals) and then being sent home.”
The Tritons would leave no doubt on this night, dominating their opponent — especially in the second half — from beginning to end, ensuring they would not let a trip to the final four slip through their fingers.
“It’s about time,” Perez said of the regional title. “Two years losing in the regional finals — we finally did it. It’s just another step towards winning states — that’s our main goal. Two games, and we can win (states).”
Orjuela said the game may have been the best the Tritons played all season.
“This was one of our best games overall,” Orjuela said. “It’s intimidating for other teams watching this and seeing it was 7-0 in the regional final. We broke the curse tonight. We came in knowing that we have to step it up — not afraid to step it up. We knew we had to leave it all out there.”
After a “scare” of sorts in the previous match against LaBelle, Mariner made every effort to ensure a win on its home field to secure the birth into the state semifinals.
Perez called the game a “wake up call” for the Tritons.
“They were a little bit more focused today than the other night (the 3-2 win over LaBelle),” Cardenas said. “The boys did a really good job of staying in front of the ball for the most part.”
Perez opened the scoring in minute 14 after he settled a ball down to the right of the goalkeeper and weaved his way through four defenders toward the front of the net and struck the ball with his left foot past the keeper.
Tovar, who had entered the game thanks to a Mariner yellow card, would score the next two goals for the Tritons.
The first one came when Orjuela dribbled up the left sideline and centered one across the box to a waiting Tovar, who snuck in the back door to bury his chance.
The second came roughly 10 minutes later, in the 37th minute, as Tovar cleaned up a rebound off of a corner kick, giving Mariner a 3-0 lead as the half came to an end.
It’s worth noting that goalkeeper Junior Ochoa made a sprawling save to his left while Mariner held a 1-0 advantage — fully extending across the line of what looked to be a sure Sharks goal.
If the pressure the Tritons put on Nature Coast Tech (19-7-2) in the first half wasn’t enough, they turned it up in the second.
Nearly the entire second half of the game was played in the Sharks’ half, as the Tritons were relentless.
Perez ripped home his second of the night in minute 53′ and was followed by Orjuela in minute 71′.
“Leo found a lot of space, and if you give that guy some space then it’s going to be a long night,” Cardenas said.
Guerrero would get involved shortly after and blast a firecracker from outside the penalty area top-shelf, following up his highlight-reel goal with a highlight-reel backflip.
Before the night was done, Perez would get his hat trick, working his defender to the right of the keeper then cutting back inside and finding the open net.
“We have to come and give everything every step of the moment, and we did just that,” Perez said. “I’m proud of everybody.”
While the Tritons are the No. 1 seed in their region and have turned in a stellar season to this point, the path of this team was in question when the year began.
“I told them when the season started that they’re not as good as they thought they were,” Cardenas said. “That was my evaluation of them because we did lose 10 seniors — six of them playing college ball. I didn’t say it because of our starting 11, I just didn’t see the depth there.”
Perez and Orjuela agreed that performing at a higher level than in previous seasons was a question mark going into the season, but that it was a role they embraced.
“At the beginning of the season, no one really had faith in us,” Perez said. “I mean, we lost 10 seniors, and everyone said we weren’t going to be the same team as last year. They said we weren’t going to make it as far. They said we might not be as good defensively, we might not be as good offensively. But look where we are now, we passed where we made it last year. We proved everybody wrong. We’re here to make our mark and hopefully win states.”
Orjuela echoed Perez’s sentiments.
“We knew we weren’t going to have as deep of a team that we had last year and we kind of like the fact that we were looked at as underdogs,” Orjuela said. “Even our coach saw us as an underdog, but we just used that as motivation to keep pushing forward and do our best every game.”
Orjuela credits their success to their work on the practice field and their brother-like bond off of the pitch.
“Just train and execute,” Orjuela said of the preparations. “We go to practice and everything you see in the game is what we practice on. Every little set piece, every cross, every finish — we all do it for a reason and just come out here and make it happen.
“We have a goal and we’re just going to execute every day. We train for this reason — to come out and put in our best.”
Mariner, thanks to a wild finish in the Region 1 final, will host No. 2 seed Bishop Kenny (20-5-2) Saturday night in the state semifinal after the Jacksonville team defeated Arnold in penalty kicks to win its region.
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