By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
ENGLEWOOD — They called it “Project Save Diego.”
Lemon Bay High School midfielder Diego Hernandez, 18, is originally from Venezuela. He is currently on a six-month visa to stay in the United States, where he lives with his aunt and uncle while playing soccer as a midfielder for the Manta Rays, who are set to open the District 3A-13 Tournament at Port Charlotte Monday night.
But it was only days ago that he thought his time with his “brothers” was over almost as soon as it began.
Flash back to Wednesday night, when Hernandez was in tears as he prepared for his flight back to Venezuela the next morning. He had no choice, as his visa was set to expire at the end of the month.
“I was going to post something to the team’s Facebook group but I was so sad that I started crying so I couldn’t say anything to them. I didn’t know what to say,” Hernandez said.
It sent a shockwave through the Lemon Bay program, even leaving coach Emilio Baradith inconsolable. Baradith says he barely managed to break the news to his team via its Facebook page, “Lemon Bay High School Young Men’s Soccer Team.”
“SAD NEWS,” Baradith wrote, “Unfortunately, we have lost Diego Hernandez. Due to legal immigration/visa issues he will not be able to stay here. Disgracefully, he will need to leave the country on the 20th of this month. God Bless him and his family, and hopefully his future in this country will straighten. Good luck Diego, I know WE will miss you DEARLY!”
Little did Hernandez know, he didn’t need to be out of the country until February, and thanks to the help of two of his teammates, he will be in uniform for the Manta Rays when they take the field to face the Pirates in the district quarterfinals.
Immediately after seeing their coach’s Facebook post, midfielder Pearson Vandine and goalie Shane Garner went over to Hernandez’s house. They asked if there was any way to change his plane ticket, any way to keep him in America for the rest of the season.
“We walked into Diego’s house and made a little joke that we were going to kidnap him and take him to [teammate] Matias [Carbone’s] house and leave him there through the rest of the season just to keep him here,” Vandine said. “We kind of got thinking after that, ‘well when do you have to really leave? When’s the end point?’”
The three of them got on the phone with assistant coach Mark Hertz, and after doing a little research, they found out Hernandez didn’t have to leave until February 4. That just left the issue of changing his flight.
“They were trying to figure out a way to ‘Save Diego’, which as an adult, my first thought was you guys are crazy. You serious?” Hertz said.
“I figured it was a pipe dream.”
Hertz told Hernandez that flight changes usually cost around $200, prompting Pearson and Garner to immediately offer up 20 dollars apiece to help cover the fee. Pearson then sent a text message to the team’s group chat and more players chipped in with money.
“They got it up to 80 or 90 bucks and then I saw the number and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Wow, these kids are actually doing something cool.’ So I told Diego to call the airlines,” Hertz said.
Hernandez called Copa Airlines to see what they could do, but again, hope seemed lost. First he was told the change would be 200 dollars. Then 400 dollars. But after a little more searching, Hernandez finally found a flight on Feb. 4 for a change fee of only $115.
Hertz told him to book it immediately.
“I started crying. I couldn’t even sleep that night,” Hernandez said. “At 1 in the morning I just said ‘Lord, thank you.’ This is still amazing. Even when I left Venezuela it wasn’t like this. These people were hugging me and it’s only been three months with these guys and now they’re like my siblings and my coaches are like my parents.”
“I came back to practice Thursday and everybody was just like ‘dude, I’m so glad you’re here.’ It’s all thanks to Pearson and Shane.”
After Hernandez booked the flight, Hertz posted a message to the Facebook group to see if the team could raise any more money and it didn’t take long for the Manta Rays to cover the full cost. In fact, once players’ parents saw what the kids had done, they offered up their own money.
Blake Dean’s parents, Mark and Darlene, ended up footing the entire cost themselves.
“For me, it was their “Project Save Diego,” and that it actually worked was pretty cool because they love him,” Hertz said. “As a student, of course I care about him as a teacher at this school and I’ll do whatever I can for him. But the soccer part of it too, he’s an integral part of our team. He’s the midfield so to lose him and expect to win out at Port Charlotte on Monday would have been, I don’t want to say a stretch, but it would have been difficult. The fact that he’s able to play and be there with us now is a great thing.”
Seed: No. 3
Record in District: 5-2
First match: Monday vs. Lemon Bay; 7 p.m.
Outlook: The Pirates are the dark horse in the district due to their experience. They’re eight seniors deep and could be looking at a district semifinal vs. No. 2 seed Cape Coral Wednesday night for a shot at the regional playoffs.
Seed: No. 6
Record in District: 1-5-1
First match: Monday at Port Charlotte; 7 p.m.
Outlook: The Manta Rays are hoping the third time is the charm against Port Charlotte, which won the teams’ two meetings this season, 3-1 and 3-0. If they pull off the upset, they’ll do so without top defenseman Blake Cason, who was recently injured in a car accident and broke his collarbone.
Seed: No. 3
Record in District: 3-5
First match: Wednesday at Venice; 7 p.m.
Outlook: The Bobcats are the defending district champions but they’ll likely have to win two road games this week to raise the trophy again. If the Bobcats defeat Venice in the regional semifinal, they’ll likely face No. 1 seed Palmetto in the district title game. North Port is 0-4 against those two teams this season.
Seed: No. 5
Record in District: 1-7
First match: Monday at Braden River; 7 p.m.
Outlook: The Tarpons won just three games this season but they’ll need to win as many this week to pull off the big upset for a district title. Charlotte plays Braden River in the play-in game Monday night for the right to travel to No. 1 seed Palmetto on Wednesday. Charlotte and Braden River split their two meetings this season, with each team grabbing a victory on its home field.