Pablo Vargas turned to his right and Tyler Ferguson was there. He turned to his left and Ferguson was there.
Step-overs, reverse flicks and other assorted tricks were thrown Ferguson’s way from one of Lakewood Ranch High School’s most potent attacking players.
Yet, Venice’s anchor on the back line was keeping pace with Vargas and thwarting each move in Thursday’s boys soccer match between two state-ranked teams.
Vargas, though, remained patient and capitalized on one chance. The Mustangs reaped the benefits, blanking the visiting Indians, 1-0, on senior night.
“I saw the ball coming and I guess (Ferguson) didn’t follow me,” Vargas said. “So I just put my head in there and luckily it went in.”
Lakewood Ranch (13-1-1) entered the match ranked No. 5 in the state, according to MaxPreps, while Venice (11-2-3) is ranked eighth.
The two sides were stalemated in the first half, with Venice clearing a ball off the line to prevent Lakewood Ranch from entering halftime with a lead.
Then 10 minutes into the second half, Vargas struck off a set piece for the match-winning goal. To set up the goal, Vargas was locked in a one-on-one battle with Ferguson on the right wing. Keeping his work rate high, Vargas forced Ferguson to knock the ball out for a corner.
“He was faster than me, so I had to how to beat him, and do whatever I had to in order to play and work for my team,” Vargas said.
Connor Bezet, who over-hit multiple crosses in the first half, delivered a perfect corner into the box.
“We just talked at halftime and was telling him that he was hitting them just a little bit too hard,” Lakewood Ranch head coach Vito Bavaro said. “‘The adrenaline’s getting to you.’ ... I think that’s what he did the first half, but the second half, he served some beautiful balls.”
Vargas, meanwhile, used some trickery to find space away from Ferguson.
“I hid behind (teammate) Nate (Ellis), so that gave a lot of space because he didn’t know where I was going,” Vargas said.
Despite allowing the backbreaking goal, the Indians had a chance to equalize 15 minutes later. Lakewood Ranch keeper Ryan Freeman spilled a shot to his right. He got off the turf, ran toward the ball and it squirted away toward the top of the box. A shot by Venice looked certain to tie the score, but Freeman jumped and used his hands to deflect the effort off the crossbar and out for a corner.
The Mustangs cleared Venice’s set piece and weren’t in any real danger moving toward the end of the match.
“This was important for us to make sure that we are physically fit for districts and for regions,” Bavaro said. “When we came back against Palmetto, the kids hadn’t touched the ball in 2 1/2 weeks and it showed. Palmetto ran all around us. It was an eye-opener for us. Thank God. Sometimes you learn more from losing than winning.”
Both teams played a physical brand of soccer with a combined 31 fouls committed, with Ranch earning 19. It got chippy enough that the referee called for the Mustangs to eject one fan that shouted their displeasure at his officiating.
“It’s always a tough game against Venice,” Bavaro said. “Ten years I’ve been playing them, and I can’t tell you how many times it was last-second goal to tie or win both ways. ... It gets a little chippy sometimes, but that’s soccer. We’re not playing badminton, so I don’t mind a physical game as long as the kids aren’t getting hurt.”
Nonetheless, the match was something that both Bavaro and Venice head coach Peter Tomich were using as a tune-up for district tournament action in a couple weeks.
“We’re ready for postseason, I really think we are,” Tomich said. “I think this is a good team and we’ve got a lot of quality. ... When I set the schedule during the year, I like to do the last few games some really quality (opponents) because that gets us ready for our district.”