Region boys soccer: Sunlake 3, Nature Coast 2
LAND O' LAKES — Both sides knew this would be a different story than Sunlake's 6-0 blowout win over Nature Coast less than a month ago.
And if not for a disallowed goal Saturday, it could have been a much different story.
Nature Coast hung with the Seahawks this time, but Sunlake held on a for a 3-2 victory in the Class 3A region semifinals. Sunlake (28-1-2) can secure a fifth straight berth in the state semifinals when it hosts Dayona Beach Seabreeze on Tuesday.
Tariq Michael scored his 40th goal to give Sunlake a 3-1 lead with 23 minutes left, but the Sharks' Vinny Stulec got his second of the game with 3:50 remaining, and they nearly tied it on several occasions.
"I thought we had it. I thought we deserved to win," said a dejected Stulec, who finished the season with 24 goals, two each in four of Nature Coast's five postseason games.
Sunlake's mega-talented trio of Sabi Restrepo and the Michael twins, Tariq and Trevon, was just too much in the end. Restrepo had a goal and an assist, giving him 28 and 56, respectively.
But the Seahawks were scrambling at the finish in a far cry from the first meeting.
"That 6-0 game wasn't the same Nature Coast team. Maybe they lost like that on purpose," said Sunlake coach Sam Koleduk.
His assessment isn't too far off. On Jan. 9 the Sharks (16-6-4) were missing two key starters, and Stulec had to play defense. After a 2-0 first half, coach Ian Wald pulled his starters.
Since then, the Sharks had won seven of eight and outplayed Sunlake at the start Saturday. And in the 26th minute NCT appeared to take the lead when Anderson Bamaca blasted home a header off Chris Reckner's throw-in.
The Sharks were called for interfering with Sunlake goalie Matthew Julian, however. Footage confirmed there was very slight contact, but even with no foul Julian had no chance at stopping the header.
"Any goal in soccer changes things the match. To have that one taken back, and to have them score right after, that was like a pick-six in football," Wald said.
Indeed Sunlake took the lead three minutes later on Restrepo's masterful free kick from 25 yards, eluding the grasp of goalie Brian Urling.
"The coaches told me to hit it at the keeper, so I just hit it," he said.
Tariq Michael hit the crossbar after that, but helped make it 2-0 shortly before the half when he flicked Restrepo's free kick on goal, and Anthony Rodrigues dove to head it in.
"That flick thing, that's just a twin thing. They're so good at it," said Restrepo.
Nature Coast's flickering hopes warmed back up in the 49th minute. Reckner's quick throw-in went a good 30 yards and led Stulec perfectly on goal to make it 2-1. Matt Johnson nearly tied it right after with a 50-yard free kick that went over.
Off a bouncing Nathan Oparka cross Michael scored, managing a half volley from 20 yards. Sunlake's defense did a fair job of preventing any serious Nature Coast chances until the final frantic minutes when Wald pushed everyone up.
That included the goalie. Urling was across midfield on Johnson's free kick from 55 yards away, headed in by Stulec.
"We just froze, No one moved. Nature Coast plays a little bit ugly, a lot of long balls," Koleduk said. "We can't be giving up goals at the end like that."
Urling came all the way into the penalty box in the final minute as the Sharks' last-ditch effort came up short.
"They didn't even think Vinny could score after that first game. I personally thought we outplayed them in both halves," Wald said. "They didn't know us; they do now. But they're moving on and we wish them luck."