Tigers soccer roars into districts with 14 wins

CLEWISTON — Early during the Clewiston Tigers varsity soccer team’s season, head coach Skip Crawford spoke to Lake Okeechobee News and laid out his vision for the team for the 2019-20 school year.

“Everyone has bought into it and everyone understands that we practice like champions and we play like champions,” said Crawford in a Dec. 3 interview. “Our goal is to be the champions this year. We want to be the district champs, we want to be the regional champs and we want to play in the state championship. And if we’re playing in the state championship, we’re going to win it.” Now as the team enters the final stretch, Crawford and his Tigers seem ready to back up the lofty goals the talented squad has set for themselves.

The Tigers tallied off an impressive 14 consecutive wins throughout this season. And with only two games left as the team prepared to travel to face the Lely Trojans on Jan. 18, rumblings of going undefeated began to make their way into conversations among the Tigers players.

But getting a win over a tough Lely team that had gone 16-2-2 thus far into their season wasn’t going to be easy. And during warm-ups before the game, the Tigers learned it was going to get even harder. CHS sophomore Josue Gonzalez, who earned Big Lake Athlete of the Week honors earlier this year, had been dealing with an injury leading up to the game, and when coach Crawford saw Gonzalez wince during warm-ups he made the decision to rest Gonzalez for the game.

“He’s not going to play hurt,” said Crawford. “Going undefeated and the win streak aren’t important enough for him to play hurt and end up staying hurt. What’s important is winning the district championship in a couple of weeks and moving on through the playoffs.”

Still, even without one of their best players on the field, the Tigers kept pace with the Trojans. But what proved to be the true difference-maker in the game were the two penalty kicks Lely was awarded that allowed them to give Clewiston their first loss of the year with a final score of 3-1.

After the game, Crawford said that Lely head coach Robbie Schank approached him and said the Tigers were by far the best team the Trojans had faced all year.

“I was very happy with the way the boys played,” said Crawford. “They got a couple of penalty kicks, but other than that it’s a 1-1 game. And that’s with one of our better players not even seeing the field.”

Crawford says the team is disappointed they couldn’t pull off an undefeated season, but he isn’t worried about the players’ confidence as they prepare to enter the playoffs. “I don’t think it’s bad thing,” explained Crawford. “It lets them know that they can be beat. Anybody can be beat. We try to keep that in their head, because you know you get to 14-0 and they start to wonder. There were games this year where we had a bad night yet somehow still won. And now they know. And look, if we’re 26-1, then we’ll be the state champions. I think that’ll make that ‘and one’ a little better.”

The Tigers are preparing to host their final game of the regular season on Jan. 23 against another lake area team, the Glades Day Gators. It will be the Tigers senior night, where they recognize the many seniors on the team, including their three captains, Jesse Paniagua, Martin Paredes and Juan Puentes. Crawford says he plans to rest Josue Gonzalez again so he’s at 100 percent for the district playoffs. vThe Gators come into the game with a 7-3 record, but one of those three losses was a 4-2 defeat to Clewiston back on Dec. 18.

Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Cane Field in Clewiston.

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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