Mariner boys earn fourth straight district soccer title
Tritons move on downing LaBelle on penalty kicks
The No. 1 seeded Tritons (17-5-2) captured their fourth consecutive boys soccer district title Tuesday night defeating No. 2 LaBelle (9-3-3) in a match that came down to penalty kicks after regulation and extra time saw a 3-3 draw.
The now 4A-8 district champs were in the hot seat down 3-2 with not much time to spare but were able to find the equalizer just before the final whistle and extend the match. After a scoreless 20 minutes of extra time, the Tritons were perfect on their PK chances and took home the title. Mariner now looks to continue its run and repeat last year’s trip to the state final. “This is the only class of players that have won four district titles,” said Mariner head coach Martin Cardenas. “We’ve had some really difficult games these last few with some really good opponents and it’s making us better, but the work ethic is showing up. We just keep working and it’s a testament to what these guys do day in and day out. We don’t take days off and when we do it’s because we have to. All the credit to the boys for working hard and staying in the match and continuing to drive.”
The Tritons opened the scoring early when a penalty kick was called just 3 minutes in. Ignacio Velardez buried the shot and gave Mariner an early lead.
The Cowboys would tie it up via an Alexis Reyes goal in minute 15 and went into the half tied.
Just five minutes in to the second stanza, Nico Casillas fired a long-range shot that had eyes and ended up in the back of the net to give the Tritons the lead once more. LaBelle would draw a penalty shot of its own in minute 50, but keeper Deric Black was up to the task to preserve the lead.
Things started to spiral downward for Mariner in minute 63 and 64 when LaBelle would score consecutive goals to take a 3-2 lead. First, Reyes netted his second of the night on yet another penalty kick attempt and shortly thereafter, a Mariner player would score an own goal when chaos ensued in front of the net following a free kick.
Gerke would play hero just before the end of regulation time, weaving through defenders and beating the keeper on a hard shot from just outside the box.
“Mentally, I don’t think we ever gave up,” Cardenas said. “Even if we’re down, we’re still thinking about driving.”
“We didn’t have much time left and we were pushing for whatever we could get,” Gerke said. “We pulled it off and gave everything we had for the rest of the match.”
Neither team could muster a goal in the 20-minute extra time period and on to penalty kicks they went.
LaBelle would miss on its first and second opportunities (both high over the crossbar) while Mariner converted all of its chances.
Gerke stepped up in the fourth round with a chance to take home the championship on his boot and did not disappoint.
“Honestly, it’s one of the best achievements we can earn,” Gerke said of being district champs four years running. “Getting to states is the next level but we wanted to bring this home for our school.”
Cardenas praised the conditioning of his team, even for a few key players that missed time recently due to injury. He also spoke of what Gerke brings to the table time after time.
“Nicco is without a doubt the most fit player I’ve ever been around,” Cardenas said. “I’ve had some really fit players, but this guy doesn’t stop. It doesn’t matter where he’s at, he’s always finding the ball and he’s a big key to our success in every game. Him coming up in the box and taking that shot in the last minute and getting us into overtime, that’s just him. He’s just constantly working, and it shows every day.”
The Tritons will open the Class 4A state tournament hosting Dunedin (2-13-1) on Feb. 17. Last season proved to be a big stepping-stone for the program, overcoming the mental hurdle of making it to the final match.
“One of our biggest hurdles was to make it there and to know we can make it there,” Cardenas said. “For years we would go and watch the final four games and think we could be playing with those guys. This group and the group before and even the year before that, we had great classes that believed they could get there. This year, they believe they can keep on winning and we’re working hard for it.”
— Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj