The Panthers finished the regular season 12-3-1 — its best record since 2018.
Coming into his second year, Dr. Phillips boys soccer coach Raul Jara knew this could be the year in which his team could make a special run. He knew he had the players to do it but also that it was going to take a complete effort by all members of the team to get the Panthers back to a level they had not seen in several years.
Through the regular season, that proved to be the case. DP has taken on all comers and, as it prepares for districts, emerged victorious 12 out of 15 games.
On Jan. 14, the Panthers took on Horizon and came away with a 2-1 victory. Horizon goalkeeper Daniel Porto misplayed the ball, which allowed the Panthers to score and take the lead in the 76th minute of play.
The game started with a score from both teams within the first 10 minutes. DP scored at the sixth minute, and Horizon answered a minute later to tie the game. After a tight second half, with neither side yielding many opportunities, Porto mishandled a save, allowing the Panthers to put it in for what proved to be the winning score.
“Today, we got lucky,” Jara said after the game. “We were missing six key players for various reasons. We were a bit frustrated today, so it took us a while to get our game going. It was a battle between both teams; the other team played really well and organized the entire game. It’s a testament to how our season has been going. It may not be going our way, but we just keep battling. That’s our motto as we go into playoffs.”
So far, that has been the case for the Panthers all season. With nine upperclassmen on the team, including captain Leonardo Sanchez, this was an experienced bunch that had seen the last couple of years not go the way they would have wanted. In 2020, the Panthers lost three consecutive games — including a first-round playoff knockout to East Ridge — to end their season,
With this being his first season with DP, Sanchez said earlier in the season the goal was to reach districts and go up from there.
Part of that success has been the complete effort on both sides of the ball. DP has scored 45 goals this season and allowed only 26, with eight of those coming in an early season game against Montverde Academy.
Senior Adam Seffari led the team in goals with 10 while also adding five assists. The other Panthers to join him in double digits for points are sophomore Nickolas Lopes with 16, senior Sebastian Rodriguez with 15, and sophomore Pedro Moreira, who has 14 points. Moreira and Lopes finished tied for second on the team in goals with six.
“The kids have bought in the entire season,” Jara said. “They’re playing really well together, and we’ve got to keep going because the real season starts with districts. They’ve really come together and played well with each other. Hopefully it continues.”
That chemistry has been a crucial part of DP’s success. Heading into the winter holiday break, the team was sitting in a good position at 9-2, the one to Montverde Academy and a 2-0 loss to Edgewater. Jara said that was the best record he has ever had going into winter break for any team he has coached.
“It took us a bit to come together, but it’s all on the players,” Jara said. “This is my second year, but they’ve bought in to what we’ve presented them, what our philosophy is and our goals. I told them I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
The Panthers kept that run going by winning all three games since the break ended, including a 3-1 victory over district opponent Windermere to push their district record to 2-0.
With districts approaching, Jara knows the expectations that are coming with the success his team has had all season.
“We’re playing with the target on our back; we know that everyone wants to beat DP,” he said. “Odds are that we’re going to face someone in districts who we’ve already beaten. It’s always harder to beat a team a second time. A lot of it boils down to the mentality that we go out and play with.”
To temper those expectations in the locker room, the team takes a one-game-at-a-time philosophy.
“Every game for us is a championship,” Jara said. “We just need to stay focused going into districts. District winners from past experience are the ones that are the strongest mentally. That’s one thing that we focus on every game. My assistant and I, we need to be mentally strong because in districts, it can be anybody that emerges victorious.”
After the win over Horizon, DP tied with West Orange Jan. 18 to clinch the Metro West Conference championship. The team lost its final regular-season game to Ridge Community 4-0 Jan. 21 to finish the season with a 12-3-1 record — its best since 2018.
The Class 7A, District 5 tournament started Jan. 26. Since it had a first-round bye as the No. 1 seed, DP will play the winner of Olympia-Haines City on Jan. 27.
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