Monday, March 15, 2021
Lynn Ramsey - Florida Catholic
DELAND | Jesuits celebrated the Belen Jesuit-Tampa Jesuit boys soccer final as the first time Florida’s two Jesuit high schools competed in a state team-sports final. Stefano Naos made sure Miami’s Wolverines carried home the trophy.
Naos put back a rebound with 7:16 left in the second overtime, and Jack Volpe made two big saves in the final minute as the Wolverines defeated defending champion Tampa Jesuit 2-1 in the FHSAA Class 5A boys soccer championship game at Spec Martin Stadium, March 6, 2021.
The victory gave Belen its first title since their initial win in 2016. Belen (18-3-1) also denied Tampa Jesuit (17-2-2) their eighth title, which would’ve moved the Tigers out of a tie for second on the all-time list.
Tampa Jesuit, however, tested Belen frequently with a strong midfield game. Belen senior captain Emiliano Sosa said coach Tanger Mendonca warned the Wolverines to expect the midfield battle. The Tigers took a 1-0 lead 13 minutes into the game on a shot by Ty Cabassa.
“They were going to send a lot of long balls,” Sosa said. “I am so proud of how our team reacted. We won every single 50-50 running hard and didn’t give up, which is more important. 1-0 down, we got a little scared. Then we talked together. We wanted this championship and we got it.”
Belen matched Tampa Jesuit’s midfield intensity, getting several chances in the first half. Belen junior Matias Perinot finally found a way to get past Tampa Jesuit keeper Phillip Falcon in the 60th minute to tie the score 1-1, putting in a rebound of a blocked Naos shot.
Belen keeper Manuel Rincon also rebuffed several Tigers chances, saving shots and intercepting several dangerous cross passes. However, Belen was dealt a huge blow when he suffered an injury with 30 seconds left in regulation. That brought Volpe into the game. Senior captain Gianluca Mejia said that when Rincon got injured, the team was a bit nervous, but they had confidence in Volpe.
“I thought he was going to get up and be OK, but there’s no time to be nervous. I had to go in,” Volpe said.
Belen had several chances in the first overtime, while Tampa’s Cabassa just missed a shot 32 seconds in. Sosa and Perinot had a couple shots too. But the Wolverines struck early in the second overtime. Alejandro Pereyra sent his 35-yard free kick at the goal. Falcon saved it, but Naos controlled the rebound and put it back in for a 2-1 Belen lead.
“It was a surreal moment,” Naos said. “At the beginning of the free kick, my teammate told me to follow the rebound. That’s exactly what happened. I was at the right place at the right time, and I put the ball in the net.”
Volpe and the Belen defense kept Tampa Jesuit out of the net the rest of the night. He had a big save a couple minutes later, then two more big saves in the final minute.
“You’re supposed to be nervous, and all of us were,” Volpe said. “But we’ve been working so hard. These are the moments we play for. You can’t be nervous. You’ve got to embrace it and play through it. This team, not a lot of people expected us to win, but we expected ourselves to win.”
The victory capped a season that was jolted by COVID two games in. After opening with wins against Palmer Trinity and Archbishop McCarthy, Belen’s roster that day had to be quarantined. Despite that, Sosa said the Wolverines stuck together, going to the beach only to train as a team. Players didn’t go to party. Mejia said that Mendonca pushed his players to follow the protocols.
Mendonca also anticipated issues with COVID. From day 1, he worked with a roster of 45 players, playing 23 at any one time. He said that allowed the team to continue working nonstop on soccer. “I only lost one game,” Mendonca said. “All the games on the schedule, Belen played. Today closed fantastic. I congratulate all my players.”
Belen benefited from the depth. After going 3-3-1 against the middle of the schedule, including a 1-0 loss to 7A finalist Tampa Plant, the Wolverines closed with a 12-game winning streak.
Several players pointed to different points in that streak as a harbinger of a championship to come. Volpe said it was a 2-1 victory against 7A region semifinalist Columbus.
Perinot said the early season and district tournament gave Belen confidence. “Last year, we actually lost at districts, and we had a really good team,” Perinot said. “After we won districts easily, and in our preseason we were beating teams that were destroying us last year, we just knew we had a chance to win states again.”
Sosa said it was a 3-1 region semifinal win against Pembroke Pines Charter that proved to the team they could win.
“Before that game, we were a brotherhood, but some of us didn’t believe it,” Sosa said. “After going 1-0 down and scoring 1, scoring 2 and scoring 3, all of us believed it. We could see the bench going crazy, we could see the fans, our parents, it was just a family. That part of the season was the most important for us.”
BAND OF BROTHERS
Many players also pointed to the schoolwide theme of Band of Brothers. Jesuit Father Willie Garcia-Tuñon, president of Belen Jesuit, said that athletics gives students a great opportunity to live that theme.
“The soccer team helped to personify that,” Father Garcia-Tuñon said. “That’s the aspect of the faith; they’re so open to that and realizing what brings them together is the love they have for each other and the love they have for God. So you take advantage of that and tell them that’s only going to make them a better team and better players.”
Belen had Father Garcia-Tuñon and recently ordained Jesuit Father Julio Minsal on the sidelines supporting the Wolverines. Perinot talked about the witness that Fathers Garcia-Tuñon and Minsal provided to the team. Father Garcia-Tuñon said the players want the priests to guide them, celebrate Mass and pray for them before and after the game.
Mass before major games was always important, Perinot said. Some Belen students and students’ parents also died during the school year, challenging the team to play games in honor of them. “It helped us to grow as a team,” Perinot said. “We just bonded over that, and it helped our chemistry.”
Charity was also at the heart of this game. Father Garcia-Tuñon and Jesuit Father Richard Hermes, Tampa Jesuit’s president, put up a wager that involved donations to charity. Father Garcia-Tuñon’s choice, Miami’s Missionaries of Charity, received an unspecified donation. The priest added that cigars may have been part of the bet.
Naos said that it was God’s plan that Florida’s two Jesuit schools would match up in this soccer final. “We’re a Catholic school. We’re both Jesuits. It’s a surreal moment knowing that the team we play in the finals is a Jesuit team,” Naos said. “At the end of the day, those are our brothers.”
Father Garcia-Tuñon lauded both teams. “Tampa Jesuit put on the field an extraordinary team, probably the toughest team we faced all year long,” he said. “I’m proud of our boys. They were persistent, they worked hard and never let down. They kept trying to score, and they did and ended up with the win. It was a great game.”