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TAMPA — The odds were clearly stacked against Seminole, playing in the Class 5A state final at the University of Tampa’s Pepin Stadium.
Melbourne came into Saturday’s final ranked No. 1 in the nation according to ESPN Rise.
The Bulldogs were the defending Class 6A state champion. They hadn’t lost a game in two years, going 48-0-1 during that stretch.
The situation became even more grim for Seminole when leading scorer Sierra Lelii was red-carded in the opening minute of the second half, forcing the Warhawks to go the rest of the game a player down.
None of that, however, seemed to faze the Warhawks. They weren’t intimidated by Melbourne’s lofty ranking. They outplayed Melbourne in stretches. Most of the time, it was barely noticeable the Warhawks were down a player.
Seminole fought valiantly to get out of the second half without giving up a goal, but in the second minute of overtime, Melbourne’s Kristin Grubka outjumped a Warhawks defender to slip a header past goalkeeper Casey Merson for a 2-1 overtime win that dashed the Warhawks’ hopes of bringing home the school’s first girls soccer state championship.
“It just happened so fast, Seminole’s Megan Lawrence said. “I thought it wasn’t even real.”
Unfortunately for Seminole (20-3-2), it was an all-too-real reminder of the school’s history in state finals, appearing in the championship four times and coming up empty in each.
“The fight of the players was great,” Seminole coach Steve Kuplicki said. “I can’t ask for much more.”
Grubka’s winner was initially saved by Merson, but the pace of the ball forced it through her grip and the shot crossed the goal line before Merson could corral it.
“From my angle, I couldn’t tell if the ball was actually over the goal line,” Kuplicki said. “The linesman felt it was. It was a quick call, so you expect he got it right.”
Melbourne (25-0) scored first in the 25th minute on another header, this time from midfielder Sydney Miller, but Seminole took a huge boost of momentum into the break when Gina Hayduke crashed the back post on Noel Forsman’s corner kick and poked home the goal with two seconds remaining.
“We hoped to carry that momentum in the second half, but then we shoot ourselves in the leg about three minutes later with the red card,” Kuplicki said.
Lelii was shown straight red after getting into a scrap with Melbourne’s Melissa Madden. Madden fouled Lelii, Lelii took exception to Madden grabbing her jersey and pushed the 5-foot-3 junior away, resulting in Lelii’s immediate ejection.
“It was a shock, but you just have to keep playing,” Hayduke said. “We have people that can score goals.”
Hayduke had the Warhawks’ best second-half scoring chance, sending a free kick from distance right at the Bulldogs goal that keeper Natalie McLachlan had to punch over the crossbar to keep out. Merson, too, was instrumental in keeping the score tied through regulation. She came off her line in the 49th minute to block a shot attempt. Later, she dove to the ground to poke a sure goal wide of the post with her fingertips.
“We knew that we had the players to become state champions,” Lawrence said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, but we definitely stepped up to the plate and I feel like (Melbourne was) challenged. I feel like they knew it too.”