After Trojans’ heartbreaking loss, Sharks again flying solo as Collier County title hopeful

The Gulf Coast High School boys soccer team poses for a postgame victory photo following their 3-1 home win over Spanish River in the Class 7A state semifinals. GREGG HARDY/CSI


Once again, the Gulf Coast High School boys soccer team has the championship stage all to itself.

All things being equal, though, the Sharks — who are on the verge of their third state title since 2013 — would rather have their friendly Collier County rival, the Lely Trojans, join them Saturday in DeLand. Gulf Coast (19-3-2) will take on Tampa Plant (18-3-1) for the Class 7A crown at Stetson University’s Spec Martin Memorial Stadium.

Last Friday night, Lely was a little more than 12 minutes away from reaching the 5A title game (which will promptly follow the 7A contest) when a shot by Belen Jesuit ricocheted off the post and into the net, deadlocking the teams’ state semifinal at 1-1. According to a report in the Coastal Breeze by Scott Shook (who also writes for CollierSportsInsider), Lely coach Robbie Schank said Belen Jesuit was credited with a goal in overtime that “hit the cross bar and went out.” Lely ended up losing 3-1.

It’s the second consecutive year that the Trojans’ season ended in heartbreak at states. They lost last year’s semifinal in a shootout (7-6) to Pembroke Pines Charter.

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Immediately after his team’s 3-1 semifinal home win Friday over Spanish River, Gulf Coast senior midfielder Noah Nassberg and coach Bryan Billingsley were happy to weigh in when told Lely held a 1-0 lead at last report.

“(Coach Schank) is a friend of ours, and we love what he does with that program,” Billingsley said. “We support them.”

Said Nassberg: “That’s great to hear. I have a couple friends on (the Trojans), and it makes me happy — us winning (and) same with them.”

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, Gulf Coast remains the only school in Collier County to own a state championship trophy — a fact that must stump Billingsley.

“The high school soccer (in Collier County) is arguably the most competitive in the state,” said Billingsley, who has successfully guided Gulf Coast back from two sub-par seasons following its 2018 state title.

PHOTO GALLERY: View images of Gulf Coast’s state semifinal victory

Indeed, since the Sharks’ first state championship, pretty much every Collier County program — public and private — has had at least one state-caliber season only to see it fall short.

“It’s just really hard,” Billingsley said. “Each game gets harder and harder and harder. I don’t know what it is.”

He continued: “I would like to pat ourselves on the back because we haven’t won it once — we’ve won it twice, and we have one second-place finish (in 2016). Coach (Alan) Scott and I … I’ve been over here 17 years, and he’s been here over 15 years, and I want to say it’s been a labor of love. We’ve been blessed with supportive families and supportive kids that have really bought in and made us and made them successful at the same time.”

The Sharks had a fairly easy time of it against Spanish River. They jumped out to a 3-0 lead — thanks to two quick goals by Jarvis Banks and an insurance tally later in the first half by Diego Martinez de los Reyes.

Gulf Coast’s Noah Nassberg, right, celebrates a first-half goal by Diego Martinez de los Reyes, center left, against Spanish River last Friday night. GREGG HARDY/CSI

So, everything went according to plan for Billingsley and the Sharks?

“You kidding me? It went better than planned,” he said. “… Getting those early goals, that gives you the confidence you need against a strong team.”

Said Nassberg: “That’s been our goal for every single game this season: Come out and score the first goal right away. Because I feel like that’s a problem we’ve had the past two years. I felt we’ve been the better team, but we haven’t been able to score the first goal, and that would always put us down. I’m pretty sure we’ve scored the first goal in every single game this year.”

This year’s Sharks team is not like the 2013 and 2018 state championship squads — both of which featured dominant goal scorers. During the 2012-13 season, Clayton Curvin’s 30 goals were 18 more than the next closest Shark; and in 2017-18, Sebastian Joffre’s 24 tallies were 12 better than his closest teammate.

“That (balance) has been a big thing,” said Nassberg, who leads the Sharks in points (31) and is second in goals (nine) to sophomore Marcello Maffei (11). “We don’t really have one superstar who’s putting up all the goals. This year, it’s a lot more of a team. We’ve all come together and we’ve all bought in. … Since my sophomore year, we’ve been saying, ‘Senior year, it’s going to be the one. It’s going to be the one.’”

So, safe to say Nassberg likes the Sharks’ chances Saturday?

“I’m loving it,” he said. “I think we can beat any team in the state.”

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