MELBOURNE — Alex Latham found herself in unfamiliar territory.
Trailing 1-0 with 13 minutes left in Lakewood Ranch’s Class 4A state semifinal match against Melbourne Feb. 7 at Eastern Florida State College, the senior goalkeeper walked out of the goal and headed toward the bench.
But, rather than cheering on her teammates from the bench, Latham found her gym bag and quickly pulled out her regular black No. 15 jersey. The Lady Mustangs co-captain slipped on her jersey and returned to the field, hoping to provide a spark for the Lady Mustangs — this time on the offensive side of the ball.
Latham spent the remainder of the game trying to put one in the back of the net for Lakewood, while sophomore Danielle Wilson defended the goal in her place
“It was different,” Latham says. “It was a way to end the season actually being out on the field with all of my teammates rather than being in the goal. A lot of fun. Very tiring. A lot more running than in the goal, but whatever I can do to help the team. I would do anything for them.”
The Lady Mustangs had talked about the change prior to game, in the event they found themselves trailing the Lady Bulldogs; the players supported the decision 100%.
“She’s a really good scrappy player when she goes on the field,” senior defender Lindsay Martinez says of Latham. “She’s not afraid of anyone. She goes in full power and does her thing. I’m fully supportive of it when we’re down, and we can use someone on the field like that. I was happy for her. It’s a chance to get her out and playing on this side.”
Latham helped provide Lakewood with its best scoring opportunity of the match when fellow senior Delaney Riggins attempted a shot, which Melbourne goalkeeper Riley Greer saved with five minutes to play.
But while Latham was busy trying to spark the offense, the Lady Bulldogs scored a pair of goals in the final 8:50 en route to a 3-0 victory against Lakewood.
With the win, Melbourne snapped Lakewood’s 24-game winning streak and held the Lady Mustangs scoreless for the first time since a 0-0 tie with Braden River during the first game of the season.
It was the second-consecutive season Melbourne beat Lakewood in the state semifinals, having beaten the Lady Mustangs 2-0 last year. And, for the second-consecutive season, the Lady Bulldogs capped off their season with a state championship.
Lakewood and Melbourne, who is ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 2 in the nation, according to MaxPreps, battled evenly back-and-forth in the first half.
And, if it wasn’t for a lucky shot in the first half, Lakewood and Melbourne could have remained scoreless at halftime.
With Martinez pressuring, Melbourne’s Kiera McCarthy slipped as she hit the ball toward the goal.
The ball ricocheted off Latham’s fingertips and into the back corner of the net.
“I was just right on her and she just got past me and got a shot,” Martinez says. “She was a really good player, but it was definitely a lucky shot.
“It kind of hurts to see that first goal go in because that whole first half it was an even game,” Martinez says. “It was us versus them. We still came out and we tried our best.”
This season marked Lakewood’s third trip to the Final Four in five years, and it’s one the Lady Mustangs will remember.
“It’s not just about us being a good team,” Latham says. “It’s that we’ve always been a close team. These are my best friends, and I couldn’t imagine ending my high school soccer career with anyone else. They are just a great group of girls. They work so hard for you, and it sucks that we couldn’t get the result that we were hoping for.”
For Lakewood’s six seniors — Latham, Martinez, Riggins, Julian Guida, Bri Reda and Gabby Photos — it was a season filled with historic runs, dominant defense and surprise.
The Lady Mustangs did not think they would venture as far as they did when the season began, but after tying Braden River in the season opener, Lakewood went on an unprecedented run. The girls set new program records for wins (24) and shutouts (18) in a season.
“That’s the reason why it hurts so much, because you can feel it,” coach Guy Virgilio says. “You want it so bad for them. I really felt that this year that maybe things would go our way a little bit, but it didn’t quite work out. They gave everything they had.”
“There are just such a great bunch of girls,” he says. “I’m going to miss them. That’s for sure — as players and as a friend.”
Lakewood scored 71 goals while Latham and Wilson, along with Martinez, Guida and fellow defenders Hannah Miller and Tatum Young, allowed only 10 goals in 26 games this season. The Lady Mustangs finished the season ranked No. 4 in the state and No. 22 in the nation, according to MaxPreps.
“We had a really good four years, especially this year,” Martinez says. “I’ve never felt closer with the team. We definitely exceeded everyone’s expectations of this year. We thought this year was going to kind of be a rebuilding year for our team, but if you look at our record it’s pretty good — our first loss is in the state semifinals.
“I think we want our legacy to be, especially for the underclassmen, that anything can happen,” Martinez says. “We proved a lot to a lot of people. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].