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NEW PORT RICHEY — As Land O’Lakes posed for post-game pictures following its 2-1 defeat of Sunlake in the Class 4A, District 8 final, each Gators player held up four fingers on one hand and three on the other, signifying the consecutive district championships the Gators have collected.
Title No. 7, though, didn’t come without a fight from a spirited Sunlake side. Land O’Lakes
(23-1) shut out the Seahawks twice during the regular season by a combined 7-0 score.
So when Sunlake sophomore Conner Gilboy latched onto the end of Jared Landry’s cross and one-timed a shot past goalkeeper Kody Parker in the 31st minute for the game’s first score, it seemed the third-seeded Seahawks might have one more upset left in them a night after knocking off second-seeded River Ridge.
“I think we’ve been playing so well the whole tournament,” Sunlake coach Sam Koleduk said. “I thought we definitely had a shot tonight, especially after that first goal.”
Land O’Lakes, behind for one of the few times all season, didn’t panic. The Gators possessed the ball, passing it through the midfield to set up runs from their bevy of dangerous attackers.
And their patience was rewarded with a minute left in the first half after Josh Davis controlled a pass from Andrew Garcia on the left wing, cut back to put the ball on his right foot and unleashed a rocket toward the far post that sneaked inside the post to tie the score at 1-all.
“Josh turned that defender inside out and slotted it home,” Land O’Lakes coach Mark Pearson said. “He’s capable of doing that. I think a lot of people overlook him because we have a lot of guys who can score goals, but that’s the second or third goal he’s turned and hit like that.”
The top-seeded Gators scored the winner in the 50th minute on a free kick from Justin Lyles. Standing about 22 yards from goal, Lyles uncorked a low-line drive that was initially stopped by goalkeeper David Danahy (five saves), but the force from Lyles’ kick pushed the ball over the goal line before Danahy could corral it.
With a one-goal lead, Land O’Lakes continued to hold possession and not allow Sunlake (18-8-1) any clean looks at goal. The Seahawks only had one shot on target all night, resulting in its lone goal.
“I was very happy with our effort,” Pearson said. “It’s not easy, seven in a row.”