By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
PUNTA GORDA — In just a five-minute span Monday night, the Manta Rays found themselves in control of their season opener against the Tarpons.
After Lemon Bay High School and Charlotte exchanged goals just seconds apart from one another in the first half, Blake Dean responded right back with two more goals for the Manta Rays, who held on to defeat the Tarpons 3-2 and give Emilio Baradith a win in his coaching debut.
Diego Hernandez also scored for Lemon Bay and assisted both of Dean’s goals.
“With Diego and Blake as forwards you get fast players and I told our midfielders we need to feed them,” Baradith said. “When you have good, fast players that get that long, long-lasting exercise going on, they don’t get tired, so whoever we go up against they’re going to have to deal with players that are not getting tired.”
Hernandez’s goal came in the 32nd minute to put the Manta Rays (1-0) up 1-0 but that lead didn’t last very long. The Tarpons (0-1) tied the game right back up in the 33rd minute on an equalizer by Kaden Howell, who struck the ball from the top of the penalty box on an assist from Michael Modlasiak.
That’s when Dean took the game over. Hernandez sent passes to Dean in the 35th and 37th minutes and Dean used his speed to beat Charlotte’s defense for two goals against Charlotte goalkeeper Noah Palmore — who was filling in for starter Jason Gaudemer after he suffered a concussion in last week’s preseason classic — to give Charlotte a 3-1 lead heading into halftime.
“They just came so fast and I was just happy to help my team out with a win in our first game,” Dean said. “It got our momentum up and we were able to seal out the win.”
Charlotte actually outshot Lemon Bay 19-14 in the match and dominated possession in the second half. Shane Garner began the night in the net for the Manta Rays, saving four shots in the first half, before being replaced by Connor Jakelis to begin the second half.
Jakelis had three saves and held off an offensive barrage from the Tarpons for most of the second half. Charlotte missed its first six shots of the half before a corner kick by Howell in the 70th minute found Donal Rateau, who headed it passed Jakelis to cut Lemon Bay’s lead in half.
Rateau then nearly tied the game four minutes later when he headed another corner kick just over the goal. Jakelis saved another shot by Rateau two minutes after that but Charlotte just couldn’t find an equalizer before time ran out.
“We dug ourselves into a hole early, and then even with that fight in the second half, it was just too much for us,” Charlotte coach Alex Lebeau said. “I said at the halftime, ‘unfortunately in the second half you’re going to have to take every chance that comes to you,’ and that’s hard to do. Realistically, you never expect your forwards and your midfielders to take every chance they have on goal but in this case we had to do that to ever come out with a win. We had plenty of chances to tie it up but we didn’t get the result. That’s frustrating because you put all that work in and get it that close but you don’t get any credit for being close.”
Charlotte came pretty darn close again in the game’s final seconds. Baradith sent Garner back into the game for Jakelis in the final two minutes and Garner had to make one more stop to preserve the victory.
Modlasiak took a bicycle kick from the top of the penalty box in stoppage time that headed towards the goal. Rateau chased after it as it started to roll towards the net, but before he could put his foot on it, Garner dove out of the goal to fall on the ball.
“I’m very happy with them. They deserve the win. They’ve been working out so hard so hopefully we get another win here soon,” Baradith said.