EAST LAKE — There is nothing anyone can say to make Palm Harbor University’s boys soccer team feel better about last season.
It is no use noting that the Hurricanes went 17-3, won their third consecutive district title and were ranked eighth overall in the state by MaxPreps.
PHU lost in the region semifinals at Lakewood Ranch 4-3. The winning goal came late in the second half in a tight game full of ebbs and flows.
"It was tough for all of us, especially the seniors who were here last season," junior forward Liam Griffin said.
The painful memories of a game that got away served as a powerful motivator this season. The players are reminded of it — in school, in practices and in games.
"The goal is to get to back (to the region semifinals) against Lakewood Ranch and beat them," Hurricanes senior midfielder Donald Patterson said. "Some of the seniors that felt that loss are still around, one is an assistant coach. They remind us all the time, even at practice that is the goal."
Though it was tough to lose, the players took some solace in knowing they have a future together. Seven starters return, giving PHU much-needed experience.
"We’re basically running the same formations as last year and that’s a big thing," Patterson said. "We have a lot of chemistry, too."
During the offseason, the players wedded the others to their sense of purpose.
Hurricanes coach Wipoj Huse knew what they wanted, too.
"They know how close we were last year," Huse said.
For 15 years, PHU has been a soccer powerhouse, winning three state titles and appearing in two other championship games. But the Hurricanes have not been in a title game since 2010.
There was always a team that was too experienced, too talented, too much to overcome in the postseason. The latest obstacle has been Lakewood Ranch.
The roster is built for a championship run with 13 players who are juniors or seniors.
"It’s been too long for Palm Harbor not have a state title," Huse said. "This year and next year we have the players to do that."
Because last season’s playoff appearance was short on games and long on letdowns, Huse wanted to make sure his players had a postseason-type experience that lasted a little longer than two games.
Try the entire season.
PHU has been sure to mark its calendar. Playoff-caliber teams from a year ago are on tap early.
And pretty much every game.
The schedule, which Huse fashioned to provide no automatic victories, is grueling. The Hurricanes’ first six games are all against teams that either made the playoffs last season or advanced to the semifinals of their district tournament.
"Our schedule is brutal," Huse said.
Huse made things tough by design because by the end of the season, his players will be ready for anything.
So far, PHU has navigated through this stretch without any setbacks. Entering the week, the Hurricanes were 4-0.
Huse reminded his players after Monday’s 2-1 victory over previously unbeaten East Lake that it does not get any easier.
"No light schedule," Huse said while his players huddled around him. "This is like a playoff run. First round, second round. Now we get to the championship. Take it that way. Test yourselves now."
These are just minor tests.
The real one comes in February.
"We want to get to state but we know we’ll probably have to face Lakewood Ranch again and that’s a huge obstacle for us," Patterson said. "These games prepare us for that."