Tritons headed to state finals
For the first time in school history, the Mariner High School boys soccer team will play for a state championship.
The Tritons (25-4-1) dispatched of Bishop Kenny (20-6-2), 5-2, Saturday night to advance to the 4A State Finals Thursday evening at Spec Martin Municipal Stadium in DeLand, where they will take on Gulliver Prep (14-7-4) at 7 p.m.
The Tritons continued their second half domination of opponents, this time overcoming a size disadvantage in which they used their speed and skill to thwart Crusader defenders.
“It feels awesome. It’s a dream come true,” said Mariner head coach Martin Cardenas of advancing to the state finals. “I thank God, I thank my family, I thank my players — these guys have worked so hard.”
On a chilly and windy night in Southwest Florida, the Tritons did what they do best — win.
Senior captain and goal-scoring machine Leo Perez struck just 11 minutes into the match when he used his speed to outrun his defender and skill to keep the ball just where he wanted it, found space and beat the keeper to give his team the all-important early advantage.
Roughly 12 minutes later, Bishop Kenny would answer when Aidan Lipovetsky buried a rebound chance off of a free kick past Triton keeper Junior Ochoa, knotting things up.
Ochoa would could up big shortly after, extending fully to his right to keep a Crusader forward from putting the road team ahead. Ochoa was also a major part of the offense for Mariner, believe it or not, constantly keeping his eyes up the field on a free kick or punt, finding the right option on his team — usually before the opponent’s defense can reset.
“Junior is a different type of player,” Cardenas said. “You can see his maturity on the field. He doesn’t panic. He’s confident doing what he does. He loves his punts, he loves his goal kicks — he’s always wanting to be involved in that part of the game — he wants to feel more part of the offense, and he does. He gives us great kicks.”
Possibly the biggest moment of the match came in minute 37 when a Bishop Kenny defender kicked the ball back to his keeper, who then picked it up with his hands in the penalty area — an infraction.
Before you could blink, Perez placed the ball down for the free kick opportunity, touched it to Jason Arias who finished his chance five-hole, giving Mariner a 2-1 lead.
“We know each other so well,” Perez said of the play. “We’ve done that before this season and (Arias) is really smart. As soon as I played it quick, I knew Jason was going to want it. So I saw him coming in and played it.”
This is not the first time these two have pulled this off, not surprisingly. The chemistry on the team is unmatched, with teammates knowing where one another will be without verbal communication.
“Same exact situation,” Arias said of the quick goal off of the keeper infraction. “Leo played it to me because we have a connection. It was a quick play and he saw me and I saw him so he played it to me and I scored.”
Arias said the Tritons’ speed and quickness gives them a leg up on the competition — combine that with an uncanny knowledge of each other’s positioning, and you get a birth to the state finals.
“It’s an advantage because some teams aren’t expecting it,” Arias said. “Some teams are sleeping. During the season we’ve had so many plays like that and it’s helped us (get to where we are today). It helps us as a team as a whole.”
Mariner would carry its 2-1 lead into the half and came out with some fire in the second.
In minute 48, Triton senior Seanpaul Negron would clean up a wild scramble in front of the Bishop Kenny net with a header that found the back of the net.
Just 10 minutes later, Arias would bury his second of the night when a Perez centering pass was unsuccessfully cleared out by the Crusaders right to Arias, who dribbled toward the keeper and fired a strike to give Mariner a three-goal advantage.
“It felt good,” Arias said of his performance. “I felt super happy helping the team out — helping get to a state final. Hopefully we can come out with the win on Thursday.”
Mariner netted its fifth of the night when a corner kick from Negron struck a Crusader defender that ended up in their own net.
Bishop Kenny would score on a penalty kick late into the match when Ochoa was handed a yellow card.
For Perez and his team, reaching this point has been a goal since day one — a goal they have not lost sight of and are focused to attain now that it’s right in their grasp.
“It means everything,” Perez said of the Tritons making their first-ever appearance in a state vhampionship game. “This group of guys — no one believed in us — no one. We came out here and look where we are — state finals. We said it from the start of the season, this has been our goal — states. Hopefully we can take the title on Thursday.”
Cardenas gives a lot of the credit to his defense, which played stellar all night.
“I’m especially proud of our defense,” Cardenas said. “Very, very proud of those guys. Today they came through and they toughened up and took one in the chin and kept going. All credit to the defense.”
Cardenas has again and again stated that this group has exceeded his expectations — something that he looks on as a positive.
“I love it when my players prove me wrong,” Cardenas said. “I have to give them all the credit in the world. It’s all them. Day in, day out, they come out and they work hard and they dedicate themselves to winning and they find a way — and today they did exactly that.”
He said a combination of hard work, dedication and staying focused on and off the field have all contributed to their success this season.
What also plays a huge role in their success is chemistry. It’s not always the most skilled teams that win, but the ones who play for one another, for the team, for the common purpose.
“They’re working together really well. I love how they get along,”” Cardenas said. “I love (seeing their chemistry). They’re doing great.”
“My teammates are everything to me,” Perez said. “We’ve created a bond all season that I’m going to remember my whole life. They’re my brothers, forever.”
Cardenas said that after a few days of rest, they’ll do what they can to be prepared for the biggest soccer match in school history.
“We’ve been trying to rest the legs as much as possible and just work on little things,” Cardenas said. “At this point in time, there’s not a whole lot of things we can work on that we haven’t already worked on. We’ll take it easy and see what we can do.”
Arias is confident that if the Tritons show up and play their game, they’ll be raising a trophy come Thursday night.
“The key for us is to just play how we usually play — touching, moving the ball, playing quick, having different players scoring,” Arias said. “If we don’t do our part then we won’t come out with the win, but I feel that as a team, we can do it and come out with the win on Thursday.”
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