PALM HARBOR — A region semifinal that felt more like a state final went to the very limit, with Palm Harbor University defeating Wiregrass Ranch 3-2 (3-1 in penalty kicks) thanks to someone who hadn't played goalie all season.
Hampton Lombard had played it in practice, though, just in case the very thing that unfolded Saturday came to be.
"I'm tall and lanky," said Lombard, who stopped two Wiregrass shots while Palm Harbor U. was converting all of its. "We've been taking penalty kicks a lot in practice, me and (regular goalie) Aidan Patterson, and I saved a couple. I told Aidan if it ever came to this situation, I didn't want it to be on his shoulders as a sophomore. I'll take it as a senior."
PHU, at 18-0-1 Tampa Bay's only undefeated team, won a pair of thrillers against Wiregrass, including 4-3 in the distict finals, but Saturday's match topped it for intensity, drama and atmospere.
"We've never had this many fans here. Ever," Lombard said.
Large contingents from both sides screamed , sometimes shrieked, throughout a match that featured heroic defensive plays, speedy runs, skill — and plenty of hard fouls. PHU was called for 19, Wiregrass 14, with players from both teams taking hard spills at times.
Whereas it was PHU that overcame a 2-0 deficit at districts, Wiregrass did in stunning fashion Saturday. Freshman Adam Mihalek, who had scored in the 58th minute off a goalmouth scramble, rifled in a shot from 30 yards that tied the score with 11:40 left. The Bulls bench was delirious, but PHU regrouped and both teams had plenty of chances at a game winner in the next half hour.
The Bulls' first PK went off the crossbar, while Lombard saved the second and fourth to end the game. William Cotter, Paul Ciulei and Matheus Dias scored for the Hurricanes, all going to the left side.
"I just told them to pick your side and go there. We prepare for everything, and spent a lot of time on penalty kicks so there are no surprises. We even had it planned out to 10 (shooters) if we had to," said PHU head coah Wipoj Huse.
The first half was scoreless, with PHU's Dan Wintermeier and Shawn Francis making clutch clearances, countered by Jake Bierhorst and Royce Luedde for the Bulls (24-6-1).
Hulking PHU midfielder Paris Mihaj got the icebreaker started with a pass that Dias chased down, lofting goalward for Ciulei who put it home in the 54th minute. Three minutes later PHU looked to have taken control as Wintermeier pounded in a laser of a free kick, but the Bulls answered 90 seconds after.
Ciulei nearly put it away in the 65th minute, putting on several moves but his shot hit the post. Bierhorst again kept it from being 3-1 by stopping a Hurricanes' 4-on-2.
The senior-led Hurricanes advance to play Plant City in the region final.
"Wiregrass is a very good, young team but this is not their year. This is our year," Huse said.