By Kyle LoJacono
For the second straight year, the Gaither boys soccer team had its season ended in the final four.
Last year Durant knocked off the Cowboys a game before the finals, and this year it was Orange Park Fleming Island winning 2-0 in the Class 4A state semifinals on Feb. 10. Gaither was senior laden and expected to go far in 2011-12 — the opposite of what was anticipated this season.
The Cowboys (20-5-1) made it back to the doorstep of the state title game despite losing 10 seniors from last year’s squad, including their top two scorers, their starting goalkeeper and most of their midfield and defensive core.
“No one expected us to get as far as this,” said Gaither forward Jonas Bukh. “We wanted to win and to make a statement, and we made a good statement I think.”
Cowboys coach Eric Sims said he cares about all of the 11 teams he’s coached at Gaither, but this year was “one of the top” because of how the players came together.
“Every game it seemed like everybody thought we were going to lose,” Sims said. “They kept pushing and came together as a family. They’re like brothers and they’re a part of my family. That’s what brings success is when a team truly comes together. These guys did and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
The Cowboys had numerous chances in the first half against Fleming Island (23-1), but the Golden Eagles used their size advantage to stifle Gaither’s attack before it could finish scoring opportunities.
“They’re a physical team and very direct,” Sims said. “We definitely haven’t seen a team that plays that physical.”
Fleming Island broke through in the 29th minute when the home squad buried a dead ball off a corner kick. The Golden Eagles added an insurance tally in the 56th.
“We didn’t match them physically,” Sims said. “We did a better job in the second half, but by then we started throwing numbers forward, and they were able to get another goal because we were playing up.”
Senior goalkeeper Carlos de Oliveira, a converted midfielder, kept the Cowboys in it, making 12 saves including nine in the first half.
“I said at the beginning of the playoffs we were going to go as far as our goalkeeper took us, and he took us this far and did another great job tonight,” Sims said.
Bukh took care of the scoring in Gaither’s 2-1 regional finals win at Kissimmee Osceola on Feb. 7. The senior scored early in the second half to tie the game and added another off a pass from Jhonathan DaSilva.
Bukh, who spent last year in his native Denmark after attending Gaither as a freshman and sophomore, finishes with a team-high 23 goals and nine assists.
“I’m going to miss this team,” Bukh said. “I’m definitely going to remember everything about this year.”