Sandcrabs goalie Cameron Bowling saved two goals during penalty kicks to propel Seabreeze to victory.
Two minutes into the second half of the Class 3A boys soccer state semifinal between Seabreeze and Ponte Vedra, the unthinkable happened: The Sharks scored their second goal of the game to take a 2-0 lead over the Sandcrabs. It was the first time this season the Sandcrabs, who were scored on a total of eight times in the 24 previous games, gave up more than one goal in a game.
Their goal of returning to the state championship for the third straight year was put on life support.
But in their years of playing together, they’d been tested like this before. They battled back.
Dillon Vollinger was the first to strike for the Sandcrabs. The senior midfielders’ goal came at the 29-minute mark in the second half and shifted momentum toward the Sandcrabs. A laser beam goal by sophomore midfielder Michel Hanna 8 minutes later tied it, and Hanna scored again a few possessions later, giving the Sandcrabs their first lead with 19:02 to play in regulation.
However, a free kick by the Sharks slipped through the hands of Sandcrabs goal keeper Cameron Bowling. What should have been a routine save turned into a goal for Ponte Vedra.
The two teams ended regulation tied 3-3.
Contrary to the regular season, postseason high school soccer includes two overtime periods and, if necessary, a penalty shootout.
Both teams had several opportunities to take the lead in each overtime period but couldn’t capitalize.
The Sandcrabs limped into the penalty kick shootout. Nearly every Sandcrabs player was either nursing an aching back, powering through leg cramps or sprinting on bum ankles.
“We all believed in each other,” senior forward Nate Thompson said. “We were all picking each other up.”
The team captains organized the lineup for the penalty kick shootout: Benjamin Hartsell first, Tanner Barnwell second, Thompson third, Will Crotty fourth and Ryan Betau last.
The Sharks were the first to attempt a kick.
With the weight of the team — and the season — on his shoulders, Bowling stepped into the box.
His father, Rob Bowling, who is also an assistant coach for the team, couldn’t watch. He left the sideline to wait in the parking lot. With each cheer and each groan from the stands at the Ormond Beach Sports Complex, Rob Bowling could only guess what was occurring on the field.
“When two teams play that hard,” he said, “it’s unfair to decide a game like that.”
When the first Sharks kicker approached, Cameron Bowling stared at the ball. He needed to redeem himself. He had a pep talk from former Seabreeze head coach Nate Murphy, who was in the stands during the game, before the shootout began.
“He just told me to erase everything from what happened earlier in the game,” Bowling said. “This was my clean slate. So I just let everything go.”
He picked a side and stuck with it. He guessed right.
However, the Sharks’ goal keeper also guessed right when he got his opportunity. Hartsell’s shot was low to the ground, and the Sharks’ keeper batted it away.
Both teams traded goals on the second attempt. Then Bowling regained his focus on the third, diving low to the ground and punching the ball away from the net. Meanwhile, Thompson fooled the Sharks’ keeper on his attempt. The keeper dove right. The ball went left.
Both teams traded goals again on the fourth attempt, and the Sharks were able to convert their final attempt.
So when Betau approached the ball for Seabreeze’s final attempt, it was for the win.
Betau walked to the ball with confidence.
“I wanted to throw the goal keeper off,” he said. “He’s going to know you’re going to score.”
He picked his spot in the back of the net: just a little left of center, like he usually does in practice.
He kicked it — hard. The keeper had no chance.
The Sandcrabs (22-2-1) outlasted Ponte Vedra on the night of Saturday, Feb. 16, to advance to the Class 3A state championship.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of great games. But that’s about the best one I’ve ever been a part of,” said Elias Freidus, Seabreeze’s first-year head coach, holding back tears. “These guys want to win. Period.”
He added: “They’re warriors. I’ve never seen a team battle so hard. They’re brothers. They do this for each other. And I’m just happy to be along for the ride.”
The Sandcrabs lost the state title a year ago to American Heritage in heart-breaking fashion. The Patriots scored with 4 seconds left in overtime to end Seabreeze’s chance at back-to-back championships.
But the Sandcrabs will have their shot at revenge.
On Saturday night, the Patriots defeated Jesuit in a penalty kick shootout to return to the state final, which will be held Feb. 23, at Spec Martin Stadium in DeLand.
“It’s just been an amazing season. We’ve worked hard. We’ve struggled. We’ve fought through the cold and the heat. We’ve come a long way,” said Thompson, whose high school career will come to an end next Saturday. “We wanted them, and we’re going to win this.”