LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Growing up poor in rural Italy, Guy Virgilio didn't have much in the way of worldly possessions.
But he never wanted for anything because he had soccer, which is treated like a religion in his home country.
He grew on the coast of the Adriatic Sea in a small town where everyone played the game. They had only one team for each age group, and Virgilio often had to compete with more than 70 kids for the 15 or so spots on the team.
It made you tough. It made you better. It made you a competitor, according to Virgilio.
His early struggles and passion for the sport has meshed well at Lakewood Ranch, helping the school build one of the best girls soccer programs in the state.
"Coach is Italian and very vocal and very emotional about everything he does. It's easy to put a lot of effort into a sport that your coach is so passionate about," Lakewood Ranch goalkeeper Alex Latham said. "He really pushes us, and you want to do well for him. He doesn't get mad, but he gets frustrated when we don't give all our effort."
Lakewood Ranch (22-0-1) will face defending state champion Melbourne (21-0) Friday in a Class 4A state semifinal at Eastern Florida State College in Melbourne. The Mustangs were eliminated by the Bulldogs 2-0 in the state semis last year.
Melbourne comes into the game ranked second nationally and first in Florida (all classifications) by MaxPreps. The Bulldogs have not lost a match since the 2011-12 season.
The girls are hoping that Virgilio can provide enough wisdom and passion to change things this time against the Bulldogs, who have gone 47 matches without a defeat.
Virgilio was 15 when he moved to the United States in 1973. He attended Bayshore during his final two years of high school, but the school didn't have a soccer team.
"They saw me kick a ball and next thing I know they are putting shoulder pads on me and I am the kicker for the football team," Virgilio recalled.
He continued to play soccer with club teams and was good enough to earn a scholarship to USF, where he was graduated in 1981.
Virgilio's boyhood passion has never waned, and the Lakewood Ranch girls soccer program is thriving under his tutelage with three state final four appearances in the past five years and 11 district titles in 14 years.
He has been the program's only coach in what seems to be a perfect fit.
The girls on his team are what you might call soccer lifers, which certainly defines Virgilio. He could coach boys and has a son, Alex, who is a freshman on Saint Stephen's soccer team. But the recently turned 56-year-old knows a good thing when he sees it.
"I've been lucky. I've had girls who believe in what I am trying to do and in the system that I teach," Virgilio said. "They pay attention, and any system will work as long as the team believes in it. It's been such a pleasure to coach the girls here. I never thought about coaching boys. As long as I keep on having success and having fun, I will continue."
Virgilio has had a lot of different teams during his 14 years. This squad is arguably his best defensively. There are no prolific scorers or nationally touted players, just a bunch of blue-collar workers like their coach.
"We don't have a phenomenal goal scorer, but they are more consistent talentwise. When the game comes, they really work well with coach other," Virgilio said.
The backbone of the team is its defense, led by seniors Juliana Guida and Lindsay Martinez, sophomore Hannah Miller and junior Tatum Young. Latham, who has allowed only three goals in 22 full games in the net and has 55 saves, is the insurance policy.
"Those girls anchor the defense so well; that has been our secret. Juliana is special. She has experience and knows how to win," Virgilio said.
Guida seems to bring part of that Italian passion Latham talks about. The Florida Southern-bound defender keeps things in place at the back end. She is also grateful for Virgilio.
"He believes in us, and that makes us believe in ourselves," Guida said. "He always knows the right thing to say. He is not a yeller, but can be hard on us when we don't play our best."
Latham and Guida welcome the opportunity to get another chance at Melbourne.
"I want a rematch. I don't like losing," Latham said. "They are very strong, have fast wingers and defensively are pretty solid. If we play our game we have a good chance of winning."
Guida added, "They were very good last year. I remember them being better than any team we played and faster than any team we played."
On offense, the Mustangs pride themselves on having a balanced attack.
Delaney Riggins leads the team with 14 goals, 12 assists and 111 shots on goal. Talia Falco has 13 goals, and her freshman sister, Sophia, has 12. The Mustangs have converted 17.4 percent of their shots on goal.
Keira McCarthy leads Melbourne with 28 goals, and UCF commit Hannah Debose has 18. Four Melbourne players have at least 15 goals. Goalkeeper Riley Greer has 26 saves and has not allowed a goal this season.
Since 2008, Melbourne has won three state titles, been to five state final fours and have had three undefeated seasons. The Bulldogs have allowed only three goals all season all coming with their backup goalie in the net.