Dan PearsonBy:  J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola

Heading into this week’s Orange Belt Conference soccer tournament, Gateway coach Sagar Patel knew his team would most likely have to beat not one but two rivals if they were to win a championship.  

After Monday’s convincing 8-0 win over Poinciana in the opening round, the second-seeded Panthers got by their first real test of the tournament by beating one of those nemesis —  Harmony — by a 2-0 count on Wednesday night.  The win sends Gateway (10-1-1) into Friday night’s championship game against top-seeded Celebration (9-2-1) and also ended an almost decade-long period of frustration against the Longhorns.

Although Gateway did beat Harmony, 2-0, earlier this season, the Panthers were a dismal 1-8-1 in their previous 10 matches against the Longhorns.  “We knew tonight was going to be a struggle, Harmony is a really talented team that has had our number in recent years,” Patel said.  “Tonight we got a great effort defensively and did enough offensively to win.”

Gateway would dominate possession, but thanks to a great defensive play by Harmony’s Aldo Ogando the game was scoreless after the first half.  The Panthers best opportunity came in the 39th minute of the half when a corner kick bounced loose in front of the Harmony goal.  But with the Harmony goalie out of position, the Panthers’ Nicolas Quintero’s unleashed a point blank shot that was blocked by the leg of a diving Ogando, who deflected the ball back to midfield.

The game would change dramatically early in the second half when Harmony’s Yekiel Hernandez-Plaza was sent off with a red card for a throwing an elbow.

With the man advantage for the rest of the game, Gateway had several great opportunities to score but Longhorns goalie Miguel Zapata made several outstanding saves – including stopping two hard shots on goal from Quintero and one from Luis Rivero.

Gateway would finally break through moments later when Youssef Khamlichi would take a pass on the left wing outside the box and unleash a wicked shot that eluded Harmony goalie Miguel Zapata.  

“We sort of had a breakaway, but they did have some defenders back,” Khamlichi said.  “I just tried to stay wide to give us another option on the attack.  When it came out to me, I was just trying to keep myself between my defender in the ball and then I saw the middle was pretty open.  I just tried to put a hard strike on it and fortunately it got over the goalie and went in.” 

“We were putting a lot of pressure on them and had some great opportunities from inside the box but weren’t able to finish. And then—all of a sudden and out of the blue– we get one from outside,” Patel said.   “That has been typical of how this team has played all season.  A different player ends up stepping up and making a play when we need it the most.”  

Shortly after the goal, the frustration of Plaza ejection and some other close calls that went against the Longhorns, saw Harmony head coach Brett Ballard ejected from the game.  As he was leaving, he encouraged his players to continue playing hard and although Gateway would continue to dominate possession, Harmony did show some life down the stretch.

Those efforts included an Alex Tuyo throw in, where Ogando was just wide on a header attempt.  Moments later, Harmony’s Jaun Rua’s free kick from 25 meters flew just over the Gateway cross bar.  In a final charge, Tuyo appeared to have a breakaway but Gateway’s backside defenders caught up to the play and swept the ball away.

Gateway would add an insurance goal in the final minute of the game as Quintero slammed one home from the front of the net for the 2-0 final to spark off a wild celebration between the Panthers players and their fans.

Meanwhile in the other semifinal across town, Celebration got two goals from Anyelo Castelano and one each from Julio D’lima and Jose Hernandez to advance to the championship game with a 4-0 win over Tohopekaliga. The Storm are the defending OBC Champions after going 6-0-1 in the round-robin format last year.

Friday’s championship will present another challenge for the Panthers as they try to defeat another team they have had little success against in recent years.  Gateway last beat Celebration in a 2017 FHSAA playoff game.  Since then, the Storm has won eight in a row against the Panthers – outscoring them 35 to 4 in the process.

“They have been the gold standard in the county in recent years and it will be a great challenge for us but it also presents a great opportunity for us,” Patel said of the upcoming title game.  “We need to eliminate errors and do the right thing 100% of the time in order to get a positive outcome.  Although both Celebration and Harmony are in different classifications, we certainly consider them rivals and the OBC Championship would mean an awful lot to us.”

Friday’s championship game at Gateway is set for 7:30 p.m.  Harmony (7-8) will meet Tohopekaliga (7-7-1) on the same field in the third place game at 5:30 p.m.