Lakewood Ranch boys soccer is a threat yet again.
All is quiet in regards to the Lakewood Ranch High boys soccer team, and that’s strange.
Usually, as the regular season comes to a close, the Mustangs receive a lot of attention, much of it from opposing coaches and players.
This year the Mustangs (16-3-1) are ranked 83rd in the country by MaxPreps (they climbed as high as No. 3 last year) as of Jan. 27, and they have been running over most opponents as two of their three losses are to out-of-state teams. Their only in-state loss was 1-0 to Celebration High (9-4-2). When the district tournament starts on Feb. 3, Lakewood Ranch will be the favorite.
But are the Mustangs still being undersold? Their coach thinks so.
“I think people are underrating us a bit,” Lakewood Ranch Coach Vito Bavaro said. “Maybe it’s because we don’t have that go-to guy this year that we have had in the past.”
What they do have is a solid combination of guys: Jacob Jordan, Naji Greene-Villegas and Gio Christiano, all seniors, among others. The Mustangs can rotate those guys up top, Bavaro said. All of them can score.
This is not the flashiest Lakewood Ranch team I have covered, but it might be the most playoff-ready. Not only do the Mustangs have more scoring options than ever — the above trio has combined for more than 40 goals — but the offense has also proven to have the firepower to come from behind.
Lakewood Ranch fell behind Jesuit High, the 48th-ranked team in the nation, 1-0 on Jan. 13 before tying it late and earning a draw. The Mustangs also fell behind George Jenkins High 1-0 on Jan. 21 before rallying for a 3-2 win.
Bavaro also is fired up about the play of his goalkeeper, senior Michael Plechy. Ironically, Bavaro said, it was in a Jan. 2 loss to the second-ranked team in the nation, St. Paul’s High (Covington, La.), where Plechy started to prove himself. St. Paul’s sent 30 shots Plechy’s way; only three shots found the back of the net. The Mustangs lost 3-1, but Plechy’s play has gone to new heights since then, allowing just five goals in nine games.
As much as Lakewood Ranch looks like a contender, there are reasons for pause, and maybe those reasons are why some people are taking a “wait and see” approach to the team this year. Despite all their regular season and district success, the Mustangs have made a habit of taking early exits from the state tournament (relative to expectations, anyway) outside of their championship game appearance in 2016-2017. Even last year’s final four team felt like it should have accomplished more.
I don’t know if this year will be different. What I can say is this: I like the feel of this team, a scrappy bunch that has put in the work and been forced to play as a complete unit to win. In the past, strong defensive teams have been able to shut down the Mustangs’ top gun, and the team has had no one able to step into his place. Well, this year, opponents can’t focus on one guy, and the Mustangs’ own defense is as strong as ever.
The “nobody believes in us” card is a powerful one to play. Lakewood Ranch can play it this year.
“We’re going to surprise some people,” Bavaro said.