LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Senior co-captain Jake Dube usually takes Lakewood Ranch's penalties.
But when sophomore forward John Rivera was taken down inside the 18-yard box during Friday's Class 4A-District 11 final against rival Braden River, it wasn't Dube who stepped to the spot.
"Jake and these guys know each other so well that they know where he's going to go," Lakewood Ranch head coach Vito Bavaro said.
And because Rivera was fouled, Bavaro shouted his name to take the shot. Rivera beat Braden River keeper Jake Buffaline in first half stoppage time, and the Mustangs (16-5-5) scratched out an insurance goal to bury the Pirates (8-9-1), 2-0, en route to their third consecutive district championship.
The victory means a region quarterfinal at home Jan. 30 against Fort Myers, which lost the 4A-12 final 2-0 to Naples Barron Collier on Friday.
Last year, Lakewood Ranch made a run to the Final Four, but the bar has been set higher this season for Bavaro and Co.
"We've been to the dance; now we want to take home the prom queen," said Bavaro, whose team defeated Braden River for the second time in three matches this term.
Getting home-field advantage for the region is what occurred last season, and this year's club did it with a strong midfield and back four that didn't concede a goal in three district tournament victories, while piling up 14 goals.
Of those 14 goals, Rivera tallied the most with four. His last one turned into the district winner.
"I don't look at the keeper," said Rivera about his penalty. "Just look at the ball, focus and it's easy. You've just got to pick a spot, and it's easy. ... I hit perfectly right to the corner. It's unstoppable."
Bavaro said it was the first time Rivera has taken a penalty all season, but the confidence was there because he's a goal-scoring forward.
Rivera obliged by lacing a shot low and into the right-hand corner under Buffaline's diving effort. Normally, Rivera goes to the left, he said. But Thursday's training session yielded positive results going to the right during the penalty-taking portion of the practice.
So he opted right against Buffaline and armed the Mustangs with a 1-0 lead.
That one-goal cushion doubled to 2-0 in the 74th minute when semifinal hero Ricky Yanez beat his marker and unselfishly dished an assist to Ben Wilson for a tap-in on an empty net.
"When they play unselfish, when they play like a team, they are tough to beat," Bavaro said.
Meanwhile, the fourth-seeded Pirates had their chances to level the game at 1-1 before pushing players more forward in an effort to snag an equalizer that led to the odd-man break for the second Mustangs goal, but Braden River couldn't deliver on its six shots to find the back of the net.
"We were able to control possession in the second half and play much better," Pirates head coach Braden Chandler said. "But at the end of the day, if you can't finish, it doesn't matter."
Braden River travels to Naples Barron Collier on Jan. 30 for its region quarterfinal. If the two East Manatee teams win, then a fourth meeting will take place in the region semifinals the following Tuesday.
"We played extremely well against North Port," said Chandler, of his team upsetting the top-seeded Bobcats in Wednesday's semifinal. "If we can come out and do that in regionals, I think we'll still continue to surprise a lot of people. But we have to be consistent and be able to play a full 80 minutes."