CAPE CORAL – Expectations were undoubtedly exceeded for Lemon Bay boys’ soccer, a season that came to an end Wednesday night in Cape Coral.

In a year that began clouded with uncertainty, the Manta Rays finished with an impressive mark of 16-9 while reaching the 3A-R4-D13 district semifinals for the first time in 27 years. Once they got there, Lemon Bay drew the unenviable task of locking horns with top-seeded powerhouse Mariner (21-1-4).

“That team is wonderful,” Lemon Bay head coach Emilio R. Baradith said of their opponent. “They know how to move the ball. They were unstoppable from the outside. We gave it our best.”

Lemon Bay suffered their second consecutive 8-0 loss to the Tritons, their largest margin of defeat all season. This time, they lasted 75 of the 80 scheduled minutes before the mercy rule was implemented.

The Manta Rays did their best to funnel Mariner’s chances towards midfield, battling for possession and rotation effectively on defense to slow down the Tritons’ attack. After falling behind by a larger margin in the second half, Lemon Bay was able to create some offensive opportunities, playing a much more competitive game.

“Strategically, we wanted to be more offensive than defensive,” Baradith said. “I made it adamantly clear that I wanted a more offensive team and wanted them to push up. It kind of backfired on us in the second half.”

Mariner inflicted most of their damage early in both halves. They jumped on top in the second minute when Marvin Alvarez angled a low shot across the goal box. Four minutes later, Nikola Salopek corralled a loose ball beyond the center of the box, rocketing a shot high and hard over Lemon Bay keeper Alex Johnson.

Trailing 2-0, the Manta Rays kept Mariner off the board until the 34th minute. Nathan Lopez lofted a high, soft cross to the back post, where Leo Perez jumped to head the ball down and into the net to make it 3-0. Perez added two more goals early in the second half to put the game out of reach.

Prior to the season, Baradith expressed some doubt about his team’s ability to replace Blake Dean, a prodigious scorer who set several records en route to being named the Sun’s Player of the Year and earning a scholarship to Florida Atlantic. Rather than setting a specific goal for this season, Baradith focused on teaching his team the intricacies of the game while emphasizing strong grades in the classroom.

In the end, they did a lot more than learn. They won.

“They grew throughout the year and started becoming a team,” said Baradith. “That’s how we got here to the semifinals. We have kids that can really move the ball now. I have to give credit to the Englewood community for putting together some rec teams. That has helped the high school.”

Baradith applauded the individual accomplishments of Ben Crumpton, who scored over 20 goals to help Lemon Bay double their win total from last year. He also noted the play of Harley Rusher, who led the league in assists for most of the season, finishing with 14.

“(I’m most proud of) the friendships and the way they support each other,” Baradith said. “They played their heart out. We’re losing a few seniors who had the spirit and the right attitude but we are coming up with some pretty good kids. We’re going to be coming hard in this district again. We’re never going to be last again, that’s for sure.”

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