TAMPA — Much of the beauty of Thursday’s Class 3A state semifinal between Orlando Lake Highland Prep and St. Petersburg Catholic was in its struggle.
From tough defense to cramping desperation, the teams played on valiantly through regulation and two 10-minute overtime periods. With no score, they extended the game as far as it could go — to the breathless drama of penalty kicks.
The end came on the fourth round of penalty kicks, when St. Petersburg Catholic goalkeeper Maggie Dalessio thwarted an attempt by the Highlanders.
Not once, but twice.
Dalessio’s initial stop was called back because the officials ruled she stepped forward too early.
Dalessio dived confidently on the next attempt and stopped it again, preserving the Barons’ 3-1 advantage in penalty kicks for a 1-0 victory.
Exhausted and exhilarated, St. Petersburg Catholic players raced downfield to embrace Dalessio.
The Barons (13-12), who are playing in the state tournament for the first time, face Miami Gulliver Prep in the 3A final Friday at 7:35 at Pepin Stadium.
“It’s pretty phenomenal the way these girls were able to play defense, hang in there and come together at the end,” SPC coach Gary Kolb said.
The Barons’ mantra throughout their playoff run has been defense. St. Petersburg Catholic has not allowed a goal since the district tournament began three weeks ago.
The shutout streak continued as the Barons took the ball and refused to give it back. Without possession, the Highlanders were unable to unfurl their attack. Even when it won the ball, Lake Highland Prep lost it again quickly in a thicket of legs at midfield.
“We knew we had to keep playing defense, and we couldn’t let up,” SPC defender Alyee Gilbert said.
The Barons had the only two shots on goal in the first half and dictated pace.
The Highlanders received a blow in the second half when Ellery Gainza, the team’s leading scorer, went down with a knee injury. Still, for long stretches in the second half, it appeared Lake Highland Prep might prevail.
The Highlanders outshot St. Petersburg Catholic 6-2 in regulation and overtime, and found open spaces near the net. But the Baron defenders were there to clear balls away, and shots that came near the goal landed in the arms of Dalessio.
“St. Petersburg Catholic is a well-coached team and played great defense,” Lake Highland Prep coach Angie Gayo said. “I thought we wore them down in the second half. We missed our chances. It seemed like they were looking to play for penalty kicks.”
Elizabeth Prather had the third, decisive goal in penalty kicks for the Barons to set up Dalessio’s heroics.