The Raiders moved to 10-3 this week with a 5-0 win over the Pasco Pirates.
As the soccer season for all other local Plant City high school teams has taken a pause as students remain out of school for their holiday break, the Plant City Raiders returned to action on Tuesday with a recently scheduled game against the Pasco High School Pirates, improving to 10-3 on the season as they cruised to victory with a 5-0 win.
It was the Raiders’ first contest since a tough 6-0 loss at the hands of Newsome on Dec. 22, a chance to bounce back strong before facing a very tough slate to finish the regular season later this month.
“Our previous game against Newsome wasn’t pretty, we just took it on the chin,” head coach Ben Henderson said. “So one thing we talked about coming into tonight was that we have to be in the right mindset. Going into Newsome we just weren’t really prepared and so what we’ve really talked about since is just coming in, being prepared, coming in with the right mindset and being ready to play. That’s really where our captains — Manuel Nava, Angel Guerra and Noah DeFrancesco, who’s not here tonight — come into play. We’ve had internal discussions about what it’s going tot take to get everyone in line because we still have everything to play for. So the goal for tonight was to come into tonight with the right process because we have Lake Gibson on Thursday and that’s going to be a big game for our playoff hopes, so I have to give them credit… We had a good practice yesterday and I think that tonight we came in with a much better mindset and I don’t have much to complain about.”
Plant City controlled possession from the opening whistle, wasting no time taking advantage of their speed on the wings to open the scoring. In the fourth minute, a through ball up the left side was pushed forward by a lightning fast senior forward in Nava, past his defender, into the box and fired past the keeper to give the Raiders an early 1-0 lead. Nava was quickly looking to get himself on the scoresheet again just moments later as he carried possession into the 18-yard box, this time with a defender in tow. Despite creating enough space to get a cross into the box, fellow senior forward Guerra was unable to reach the pass and direct it on net as Pasco narrowly avoided conceding a quick second goal.
In response, Pasco threatened as they controlled possession on the edge of the penalty area, eventually sending a ball into the box that nearly put the Pirates in a golden spot to knot the contest at 1-1 but a picture perfect slide tackle from sophomore Kameron Kropp thwarted the opportunity and Plant City was able to eventually get the ball out of their defensive third and away from danger.
In the 16th minute Plant City was able to press possession in their offensive third, forcing Pasco to play on their heels and simply clear the play out for a Raiders throw in. On the ensuing throw in, the ball was subsequently headed toward the top of the 18-yard box, settled by freshman midfielder Ismael Gonzalez and tucked perfectly into the corner of the net past the outstretched hands of Pasco’s diving keeper to give Plant City a 2-0 lead. And in the 27th minute, with the Raiders once again challenging the Pirates’ defense, the ball was lofted into the left side of the Pasco penalty area, corralled near the goalline by Nava as he navigated around the charging keeper, back toward the goal and finished the opportunity through a sliding defender to give Plant City a 3-0 lead heading into halftime.
In the second half Plant City utilized a number of deep runs up the left side in a constant effort to create chances through Nava’s speed. In the 42nd minute Guerra played Nava through and the shot from the top of the box narrowly missed wide, but the duo linked up again shortly after as Guerra led the run for Nava who converted the scoring chance to give Plant City a 4-0 lead on his third goal of the night. The goal put Nava at 19 goals on the year as he continues to prove himself as one of the top goalscorers in the state, sitting with the second-most goals across Florida’s entire 7A class, trailing just Plant High School’s Adan McGlynn and his 20 goals over the Panthers’ 10 games this season. Additionally, the assist from Gonzalez was his eighth of the year, leaving him tied for first in the state of Florida, across all classes for assists as a freshman.
“Pasco was playing a high line,” Henderson said. “Their defensive line was up and Nava is probably one of the fastest players in the county so it’s the same look we had when we played East Bay when their defensive line plays up, you get the ball to Angel, you get the ball to Jose Hernandez, they can just play the ball over the top and people aren’t catching Manny. Honestly this was a good matchup for a guy like Manny who can just burn you over the top, then he gets a hat trick.”
And in the 60th minute, Gonzalez added his second goal of the evening to seal a 5-0 victory for the Raiders.
With district tournaments on the horizon, Plant City looked to add this game against Pasco in the hopes of coming away with a decisive victory and boosting their MaxPreps regional ranking, something that will inevitably play a crucial role in the Raiders’ odds of securing a state playoff berth as they navigate a strong district that also features 11-1-0 Newsome and 7-1-1 Strawberry Crest. But what will likely play an even more important role in their playoff odds is their play throughout the final five games of the season as the Raiders’ tough final stretch includes contests against 8-2 Lake Gibson on Thursday and rival Strawberry Crest on Jan. 13.
But regardless of where Plant City finishes the year, their 2022-2023 season has been a massive turnaround already when you compare their 10-3 record heading into January to their 6-12-1 finish to 2021-2022.
“I think a big difference this year is that our confidence factor this year is much higher than we had last year,” Henderson said. “I don’t know if after game one when we lost to Robinson that we thought we would be sitting here at 10-3, especially when you consider last year we were 6-12-1, I mean it’s much better to be on this side. Particularly since the Bloomingdale game, we got on a bit of a role and I think guys are confident and guys are proud to be here and I think that’s one of the biggest changes from last year. Guys want to be here, guys are motivated and that’s what comes with winning.”
Guerra elaborated on the differences that he’s seen as a player between the two seasons.
“We have players that will commit,” Guerra said. “We have players that come to practice and actually want to practice. Last year we had some players that really didn’t care, they were just there to be on the team. We play as a team now. Last year we had individuals that just wanted to get their own goals, get their stats, but this year we have a team, we play as a team, we communicate well, and we still need to communicate a little bit better, but we’re doing good.”