When the Lely High School girls soccer team lost the Class 3A-District 12 championship game 1-0 to Barron Collier on a last-minute goal Friday night, the Trojans were devastated.
They all felt their season was over.
But Lely coach Jen Santiago had a little trick up her sleeve.
She conveniently neglected to tell her squad that they had already qualified for the regional playoffs by virtue of a thrilling win via penalty kicks over Naples in the semifinals Wednesday.
“I felt they’d play even harder if they thought it was a do-or-die game,” Santiago said. “They had used up so much energy in that Naples game, I wanted to give them a little extra edge for the district championship. And despite the fact the girls were tired, they played their hearts out.”
Junior Alondra Castillo, the Trojans’ leading scorer with 14 goals and 16 assists this season, said the Trojans were crushed immediately following the loss to the Cougars.
“We were all upset. We thought the season was over,” she said. “But when coach told us not to worry, that we were coming back for regionals, we were all like, ‘What?’ I was pretty excited, knowing we’d get the chance to come back and keep our season going.”
For senior standout Emily Hamilton, Santiago’s little fib was a welcome surprise.
“It was a really big shock but a good one in my mind,” she said. “My mentality was, we win or we go home. It was great news for me, because I didn’t want that to be my last high school game, especially losing on a last-second goal like that.”
The Trojans (7-9-2) travel to Cape Coral-Mariner (17-1-5) on Tuesday, Feb. 6, for their first regional playoff game in more than a decade. Lely lost 6-0 to the Tritons in the second game of the season, but the girls admit they’re a much different team than the one that faced Mariner back on Nov. 13.
“I don’t think we should forget about that game, but I think we should accept it and move forward, knowing we’ve gotten much stronger as a team,” sophomore Saoirse Bowe said. “And when we look at some of their recent results and our recent results, it should be more of an even game than it was last time.”
Although the Tritons have lost just once all year, they’ve tied Fort Myers twice, a team the Trojans beat 3-1 for one of Lely’s signature victories this year.
“Besides technical improvements, I’d say our confidence is here now, where it wasn’t there in the beginning of the season,” Hamilton said. “I think we really believe in ourselves now.”
The Trojans also have a steady leader in Santiago, now in her third year with the program. Santiago played collegiate soccer at Michigan State, so she knows all about playing the game at a high level.
“I think she’s a really good coach because she speaks from experience,” Bowe said. “She’s played the game, both at the high school and college levels, so she understands what we go through as players, both on the field and in the classroom.”
Castillo said Santiago is quite the motivator as well.
“She tells us all the time, ‘I know you can do this,’ and that we have the heart to do it, we just need to put in the work,” Castillo said. “She’s also really good at giving us little goals to set, even in the middle of the game. At halftime or water breaks she’ll tell us to go get a goal or to keep the other team out of our side for the next half or whatever, and those little goals help us and motivate us a lot.”
Santiago said she’s proud of her squad, no matter what happens in the game against Mariner on Tuesday.
“The girls have really started to believe in themselves this season,” Santiago said. “They know they belong on the same field as these teams, where in the past they may have been beaten before even stepping on the field. They’ve come a long way and they should be proud of how they’ve played. It’s been a long time since a Lely team got to this point, and they did it.”
For the girls returning to the team next year, this season may be the tip of the iceberg. The Trojans want to show they’re here to stay.
“We’ve made ourselves known to the other teams on our schedule that we’re no longer a team where we show up and you just expect an easy win,” Bowe said. “I think last year we would try to win but deep down we felt we were going to lose, so we didn’t have a chance mentally. This year, we go into every game feeling we’ve got a chance to win, and that makes a big difference.”