By Pensacola FC
Pensacola FC U19s finished as NPSL Spring 2023 U-19 Gulf Coast Winners after going on a five-game unbeaten streak.
The Jr. Pelicans had an opening day 1-0 loss away to a very tough opponent, Southern States SC in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Hakeem Reid was the goal scorer from a corner kick set piece for the host.
Then they traveled to New Orleans to face the Jesters. They were able to get their first point in a 1-1 draw. Viktor Tran scored the lone goal for Pensacola.
The Pelicans did not have it very easy as they were away once again on the road to Tallahassee SC. Seeking their first win of the season, they had to have their best performances to get past a tricky Battle Lions outfit. After the dust was settled, they were able to walk away with a 4-2 victory, which opened up the race for the title. Grant Wheeler had a hat trick, and Matt Ryan had a goal of his own.
Pensacola had three home games to finish out the season, and they were facing some quality opposition. The weather caused their game against Tallahassee to be canceled, and that game was rescheduled for a later date. However, Tallahassee were unable to field a team for the remainder of the season and three points were awarded to the Pelicans.
With the final two games approaching, the Pelicans played host to table leaders Southern States Soccer Club and third-place New Orleans Jesters. If Pensacola lost the encounter against Southern States, the latter would be crowned champions. So this game was built out to be of high quality.
Pensacola started on the front foot and looked to take control of the game with their possession game. Captain Michael Lightborne was very instrumental in guiding the younger players in the squad. His leadership on the field helped bring calmness to Pensacola. Knowing what was at stake, Pensacola struck first with Will Woodward giving them a 1-0 lead.
Southern States was never going to make it easy for the home team, and on the stroke of halftime got the equalizer from another set piece. Just like in the reverse fixture Reid towered over the Pensacola defense with a powerful header that left Samuel Linkous in Pensacola’s goal with no chance of getting to it.
After halftime the Pelicans came out inspired, and it was “the Will Woodward Show.” He started running at the visitors’ defense and eventually got his second goal with some wonderful possession which saw him unleash a beautiful shot to give the host a 2-1 lead. With time winding down, Southern States were pushing for that equalizer but Pensacola’s defense did not allow them to get that decisive chance. Then with 90 minutes on the clock, and a tiring Southern States who was reduced to 10 men after two yellow cards, the Pelicans sealed the deal when they were awarded a penalty kick.
Up stepped Woodward to complete his hat trick and collect all three points for the Pelicans.
Up next was essentially a title game against the New Orleans Jesters. A tie would see Southern States lift the title. A win for either side would see them leapfrog Southern States and lift the title.
New Orleans started the game by applying a high press to Pensacola with the hopes of winning the ball in their attacking third and possibly creating early goal scoring chances. However, Pensacola was able to weather any storm the Jesters brought.
The home side looked comfortable in possession, and their defensive discipline made it very difficult for New Orleans to penetrate. It was only a matter of time before the home team got on the score sheet. Woodward struck again with some beautiful interchanging from Elijah Oswald and Iddi Bingi. He was able to get free just outside the Jesters’ box and struck a beautifully placed shot past New Orleans goalkeeper Lamoy Graham. Pensacola took that 1-0 lead into the halftime break.
With the second half underway Pensacola looked in full control of the game. Their defensive compactness and organization was too much for the opposition. Their ability to win the ball and launch an attack was problematic for New Orleans. A second goal would come when Woodward latched on to a through pass with only the keeper to beat, giving Pensacola a 2-0 lead.
With the final whistle, Pensacola FC finished as NPSL Spring 2023 U-19 Gulf Coast Winners. They last competed during the 2020 season and had a runner-up finish to eventual winners, Port City FC.
“I am very proud of this group,” Pensacola FC head coach Dean Logan said. “The level of football on display during the season was fun to watch. We were able to build this team among players within our community and environs, which proved fruitful as the results showed. We faced some quality opposition, and they never made it easy for us. I think that the boys worked really hard, and deserved the reward of being crowned champions.”
Photo Credit: April Bolden