In a game that ultimately came down to penalty kicks, the Raiders were able to claim victory over Ridge Community.
After amassing a 15-3-1 regular season record, the Plant City Raiders entered the 7A District 6 tournament as the second seed, earning a first-round bye and an automatic spot in the semifinal round. After six-seed Ridge Community upset Strawberry Crest in a 0-0 contest that was ultimately decided by penalty kicks, the Bolts made their way to Plant City on Tuesday where the elimination game once again went down to penalty kicks in a scoreless contest, with the Raiders escaping victorious and advancing to the district championship.
Plant City was able to open the contest with offensive pressure. The Raiders saw their first scoring opportunity come in just the second minute as senior Manny Nava bolted up the right side on a beautifully sent through ball, cutting back and finding senior forward Angel Guerra at the top of the box. But despite the opportunity, the first-touch shot was sent just wide of frame. In the fourth minute the Raiders were threatening again with another run from Nava, this time steered back to the middle of the pitch before he sent a 25-yard shot just inches outside of the left post. For the next several minutes the offensive chances for both clubs were scarce, with Ridge Community settling for one deep shot from well outside of the 18-yard box, saved without much trouble by Plant City keeper Francisco Miranda. But in the 22nd minute Ridge put together a dangerous opportunity with a well-timed run into the 18-yard box, only for the chance to be thwarted by a sliding clear from sophomore defender Miguel Hernandez-Garcia.
In the 28th minute Plant City answered back with another pair of great opportunities, led by Nava beating his defender to create space, passing the ball up the left side to Fredi Trejo who raced his way into the goal area and ripped a shot on frame that was just sent out of play off of the outstretched hand of Ridge Community’s keeper. On the ensuing corner kick, Guerra managed to put his head on the cross but the ensuing shot was sent a foot over the bar. Throughout the remainder of the half Ridge Community was finally able to start mounting some meaningful offensive chances of their own, but it was a handful of stellar saves from Miranda that kept the contest knotted at 0-0 as the whistle marked an end to the first half.
The Raiders nearly pulled ahead with another great opportunity early in the second half as the ball was brought into the offensive third through midfield, dropped off to senior Jose Hernandez and ripped inches outside of the right post from 30 yards out. But alas, the game remained tied. The remainder of the second half was tightly contested as defenses adjusted and stayed behind their opposing offenses, forcing difficult shots from outside of the 18-yard box as space near the goal was cut off effectively. At the end of full time, the game remained even at 0-0 and the two teams prepared for two 10-minute extra time periods with the hope of pulling ahead to avoid penalties. Ridge was able to take advantage of quick counter attacks early in the first extra time period, but Plant City’s back line stood strong to avoid conceding any chances that were overly concerning for Miranda. And the best scoring opportunity for Plant City came in the final seconds of the second extra time period as Hernandez created space on the right side, just outside of the 18-yard box, and sent a cross into the goal area where an unmarked Noah DeFrancesco leapt to put a head through the pass, only for the storybook ending to fall inches short as the resulting shot soared just high over the crossbar.
With the Raiders season on the line, they huddled together ahead of their win-or-go-home penalty shootout, deciding as a team which players wanted to step up in the biggest moment of the year.
“You dance with who brought you,” head coach Ben Henderson said. “They may not be the best pure PK guys that we have on the squad and admittedly we may have a couple of guys that may be better at PKs, but when it’s a pressure-packed situation, your career and season is on the line, you also have to have poise in that moment. Our team talk was just, ‘who wants to take it?’ In your head you know guys that you want to take it but truth be told, the guys picked it themselves. I didn’t point at guys. It was asking who wanted to take it and five guys stepped up.”
To begin penalties, Guerra stepped up to the line first and tucked a perfectly-placed shot into the lower corner to immediately give Plant City a 1-0 lead, but Ridge Community’s first shooter quickly drew the shootout even with a goal on the Bolts’ attempt. Then it was Nava’s chance to pull Plant City ahead, doing so with ease as he buried his attempt, and once again the pressure was back on Miranda in net. In a huge moment, Miranda rose to the occasion as he made a diving save on Ridge Community’s second attempt and gave Plant City a crucial advantage. Sophomore Kameron Kropp scored on the Raiders’ third attempt and as Ridge Community’s third shot missed the frame wide right, DeFrancesco stepped up with a chance to seal the contest and clinch a spot in the district championship, just minutes after narrowly missing a chance to win the game in extra time. With poise, the senior midfielder converted and the celebration began for the Raiders.
“What we knew coming into this game from watching the film was that Ridge Community has a very solid keeper and that they are very organized in the back,” Henderson said. “So even though we had scoring chances and we can look at opportunities that we should have had, we could probably claim a goal or two, but when a team is organized in the back with a good keeper you have to come up with quality yourself to score and we knew that coming in. That’s why we didn’t panic necessarily, because we felt confident about our back side. We didn’t feel like we were under duress so we kept pushing but we just couldn’t find a goal. Honestly, having watched their tendencies on film, I think we also felt confident going into the shootout. We took notes, we knew where they liked to go and so it really helped our confidence level — and shootouts are all about confidence. They have a good keeper but we felt confident in our plan. Then, as we saw, Francisco was pretty accurate in his predictions of where they would go.”
Plant City will now face Newsome in the district championship, a Wolves team that handed the Raiders one of their three losses on the year by way of a 6-0 final on Dec. 22. With a plan in place, Plant City will look to get revenge and lift their second district trophy in three years on Thursday.
“Newsome is the cream of the crop, there’s not getting around that, but if you want to win the district title you have to beat someone good at some point,” Henderson said. “So we’re going to watch film tomorrow and we’re going to come up with a game plan of formation-wise what we want to do, tactics-wise what we want to do and then you have to follow through with the plan. Don’t go rogue, trust the plan, trust what we see on film. I will say this about Newsome, structure-wise they have mostly stayed in the same structure for four years so we know what to expect, but they just execute at a very high-quality level. It’s going to be a game where we probably just have to capitalize on one or two mistakes in the back for them if we want to get through but I told the boys, it’s the same expression as in football, flags fly forever. So we have an opportunity to get a trophy and get a picture that will be in the hallways forever and I hope they don’t miss out on that opportunity.”