As the minutes ticked away during the second half of Palmetto’s 4-1 win against Lakewood Ranch, Rui Fernandes began pulling his starters off the field. The Tigers head coach paused for a moment with each one who passed him, clasping his arms around each one and wrapping them in a vise-grip hug.
Leandro Gonzalez was the last to pass through, and the midfielder remained standing in front of the Palmetto bench for a bit longer. The senior walked in front of his teammates, slapping each player’s hand.
“Who’s the best team in the county?” he asked as he passed by.
“We are,” he said, answering his own question. Each high five grew more intense.
Last winter amounted to a near disaster by the Tigers’ lofty standards. Palmetto (15-1-1) finished .500 during Fernandes’ first season as head coach, and the Tigers ended the year with back-to-back shutout losses in the Class 4A-District 11 championship and Class 4A-Region 3 quarterfinal.
Friday’s win against the Mustangs (10-1-1) at Lakewood Ranch High School’s stadium was a statement and a reaffirmation of Palmetto’s superiority in Manatee County.
Both teams entered the rainy evening staking a claim as not only two of the best teams in the state, but as two of the best in the entire country. MaxPreps.com’s computer rankings pegged the Tigers as the No. 17 team in the nation this winter and the Mustangs as No. 22, Palmetto as the third-best team in Florida and Lakewood Ranch as the fifth.
“We just knew that they’re a good team. We know they’re definitely a contending team,” Tigers forward Jorge Morales said. “We just had to play with our heart, play with our head and just leave it out on the field.”
Palmetto has built itself into an obvious state championship contender more methodically than the Mustangs, who hadn’t allowed more than one goal in any game all season before Friday and only had suffered one draw. The Tigers dropped their season opener to Venice and didn’t have a signature win until last month, when Palmetto spent the first part of its winter break at the Mike Stone Invitational Tournament in Tavares.
The Tigers knocked off previously unbeaten Orlando Olympia on its way to the championship and then began the new year by erasing a two-goal deficit to draw Tampa Berkeley Prep on Thursday.
Friday’s win dwarfed them all. Palmetto scored three minutes in on a shot by forward Candido Calvillo from about 40 yards out and added another on a header by Morales in the 26th. The Tigers’ lead never again shrunk below two goals.
“Just considering the team that we were going against, our composure and how we played,” Morales said, “it was just perfect.”
Lakewood Ranch played its style — although a three-week layoff left the Mustangs a bit sluggish, Lakewood Ranch head coach Vito Bavaro said — and Palmetto played its brand of soccer. The Mustangs held a consistent edge in time of possession and peppered Tigers goalkeeper Ryan Hirst with 12 shots, but Palmetto nailed its counterattacks and took advantage of Lakewood Ranch’s mistakes.
The Tigers’ first goal came when a through ball pulled Ryan Freeman out of the box for a clear attempt. The Mustang goalkeeper’s sliding clear found its way to Morales, though, who touched a pass off to Calvillo for the lob into the open net.
Morales contributed to all four goals — scoring two and assisting on the other two — and nearly all included a Lakewood Ranch gaffe. His header in the 26th minute came on a defensive miscommunication in front of the net, and his assist to Ty Dolan during the 53rd minute was essentially a breakaway when the Mustangs lost track of the Tigers midfielder. The fourth and final goal, after Lakewood Ranch cut Palmetto’s lead to 3-1, came on an assist from Alfredo Manriquez after a Mustangs turnover in their own defensive third.
“We just had to counter off the mistakes,” Morales said, “and that’s what we did.”
As thrilling as the win was for the Tigers, it was disheartening for Lakewood Ranch. The Mustangs’ promising 2015-16 season went awry after New Year’s Day, too, when a long layoff led to draws in their final two regular-season games and an early exit in the Class 5A-Region 2 quarterfinals.
Bavaro knows to fear the holiday layoff, and in Lakewood Ranch’s first game back his fears were realized. He scheduled a rigorous non-district slate for January — the Mustangs also face Cardinal Mooney, Venice and Tampa Jesuit during the next two weeks — with games like Friday’s in mind.
“We’ll come back. We’ll be fine,” Bavaro said. “It will just be a matter of again starting over like Day 1. Getting our legs back under us, getting our touch back, getting our full squad together and then getting ourselves mentally and physically prepared for the postseason.”