LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Pablo Vargas flew to the sideline in celebration Friday. After a full half of missed opportunities, Lakewood Ranch responded with a three-goal flurry early in the second, capped with a flying header by Vargas.
Connor Bezet curled a corner kick from the right side in front of the net where Mustangs jostled with Sarasota Riverview players for position. Vargas waited for a moment on the edge of the penalty area before dashing in. The forward sprung over the defense and in front of two teammates to deflect in Ranch's third goal. He picked out a teammate on the sideline for a high five and dab. In the span of 10 minutes, the Mustangs turned a one-goal deficit into the 3-1 lead in rallying past against Riverview in the Class 5A-District 8 final.
"I was kind of getting frustrated," Vargas said. "Coach gave us the normal speech and we just came and played like he told us, and you saw the result."
From the 46th minute to the 56th, Vargas scored twice and midfielder Tyler Puhalovich finished another. The Ranch defense held off the Rams for the final 24 minutes at Lakewood Ranch High School and clinched a home game for the Class 5A-Region 2 quarterfinals Thursday against Wesley Chapel Wiregrass Ranch.
Even after Riverview opened the scoring on a free kick by defender Etienne Behan in the 19th minute, the Mustangs (14-3-4, 7-0-1) felt comfortable in their offense.
Puhalovich entered as a substitution in the 22nd minute after Nate Ellis was booked with a yellow card and the midfielder's pace immediately changed Ranch's offense. After playing relatively evenly with the Rams (9-7-3, 3-3-2) for the first quarter of the game, Lakewood Ranch blasted four shots on goal during the final 11 minutes of the first half.
Head coach Vito Bavaro emphasized the fundamental points of his offense at halftime: He needed midfielders to go wide and set up crosses from the corners. He needed forwards in front of the net to put home volleys.
"It's been what we've been doing all year," Bavaro said. "We just had to do it from behind this time."
Puhalovich finished a volley in the 46th minute to equalize the score.
"Where were you?" Bavaro asked him during the second-half water break.
"Coach, right where you said," Puhalovich said.
Six minutes later, Vargas collected a ball at the edge of the penalty area, split a pair of defenders with a series of dribbles and fired the go-ahead goal over goalkeeper Mika Kuschnitzky.
When Vargas headed in the Mustangs' third goal during the 56th minute, he gave Ranch three goals during the second half before Riverview even attempted a shot. The Rams only attempted two shots during the final 40 minutes with one on goal. They were booked for yellow cards three times.
"All we needed was one goal," Vargas said, "because we knew once we got that once we got that goal, we were going to get control of the whole game and they would not get a chance against us."
So Vargas could spend most of the final period hunting a hat trick. He dribbled across the area from left to right in the 67th minute and forced Kuschnitzky into a tough save. During stoppage time he chased down a through ball and chipped a shot over Kuschnitzky and the net. The next time he touched the ball he launched from well outside the penalty area.
When he plays atop the offense with confidence, Lakewood Ranch's offense is difficult to contain. It's part of why the Mustangs haven't lost in 17 matches dating to Nov. 9 and will play host to a region playoff game next week.
"I think we're primed for a good run to state," Bavaro said. "This is a really good team to coach. They listen. We had a game plan."