LAKEWOOD RANCH -- When the regular season ends and the best teams in Manatee County separate themselves with deep runs through the postseason, Vito Bavaro typically expects to see his Lakewood Ranch team and Saint Stephen's lasting longer than most. Their usual regular-season meetings, as such, tend to provide a benchmark for both clubs.
The Mustang head coach's postgame words were brief -- this was the best Ranch had played all season, delivering its signature performance so far against the county's private-school power. It was a 3-0 win for the Mustangs and Ranch (7-2-1, 2-0-1 Class 5A-District 8) controlled the pace and scoreboard throughout. By halftime, Lakewood Ranch held a two-goal lead and the Falcons (4-1-2) never even came particularly close to scoring.
"You look at who's playing after the season it's always us and them, and Palmetto," Bavaro said. "It's always a good game for us to gauge where we are as far as state-wide."
Lakewood Ranch needed only four minutes to get on the board Tuesday when forward Drew Butler fielded a perfect chip pass from forward Ricky Yanez in the middle of the box and placed a shot past SSES goalkeeper Chris Morrish for the first tally of the game.
Nineteen minutes later, Butler took another through ball down the left side and raced toward the corner. From the end line, the sophomore rolled a pass across the goal mouth and midfielder Connor Bezet rocketed it into the back of the net.
"We had three beautiful goals," Bavaro said. "That goalie's good, so we knew we weren't going to get any cheapie goals tonight."
At this point, SSES didn't even have a shot. Saint Stephen's first one came in the 24th minute when Antonio Colacci missed the net by several feet from the right side of the box.
The Mustangs put together extended build-ups beginning with their defenders and ended most of the Falcons' potential threats in the middle third of the field. On the rare occasion they slipped into the attacking third, SSES' forwards never found enough space to get off a clean shot.
"We're playing against a good team," Saint Stephen's head coach Marc Jones said. "We didn't really have too many efforts the first 20 minutes. They did a good job closing us down and we struggled keeping possession."
The Falcons only put one shot on goal during the first half and fell behind by three on a goal by Ranch midfielder Felipe Dangond in the 45th minute. SSES, which had five shots to this point, managed three more in the waning minutes after Lakewood Ranch sagged back to protect its commanding 3-0 lead.
Although its offense improved after an initial slog against the Mustangs, Saint Stephen's never broke through and was shut out for the first time this season. Ranch was also the Falcons' toughest test of the year and left SSES with its first loss.
It was the sort of test both teams wanted and Friday Saint Stephen's will get another crack at a public school when it hosts Braden River in Bradenton.
For Lakewood Ranch, Tuesday was an assurance of its position atop the district. Since blowing a two-goal lead to Manatee and settling for a draw Nov. 19, the Mustangs have outscored their opponents 11-3 in three games and now play four straight against the district.
"We're in the driver's seat," Bavaro said. "It's exactly where we want to be."