TAMPA — Durant’s administrators had a sign-in sheet Friday at Pepin Stadium to determine just how many of the 700 or so students who checked out early actually matriculated to the Cougars’ Class 5A state semifinal.
Final tally: 488. Even athletic director Todd Long betrayed stunned delight at what materialized into a Durant pep rally in downtown Tampa. On a warm afternoon, the vocal throng of Cougars students provided the pep, and Connor Bass and Co. provided the rally.
Unfazed by a Gaither goal in the opening minute, the Cougars (16-7-2) stormed back, owning the middle of the field and capitalizing on key set pieces for a 3-2 triumph.
“After we gave up a goal in the first (minute), our attitude could’ve been like, ‘We made it to the final four, it’s a great season, Gaither’s going to kick our (butt),’ ” said Cougars coach Jamin Hollingsworth, whose team faces Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in today’s 4:35 final.
“But to their credit they never believed that and we’re not going to believe that.”
Bass, a 6-foot-6 converted goalkeeper who hadn’t taken a flush shot all game, scored the winner in the 72nd minute on a straight-ahead 25-yarder that rolled past Cowboys keeper John Nardozzi into the left side of the net.
Even that shot was “not perfect at all,” said Bass, who has scored the winner in Durant’s past three contests. “I messed up enough, I had to get one eventually.”
While Bass struggled to find crisp shots, he was flawless as a towering decoy, especially on a critical set piece that gave Durant a 2-1 halftime lead.
With the Cowboys (19-5-2) locked in on Bass, Cougars sophomore Ben Eisenhauer lofted his 32nd-minute free kick from midfield deep to fleet 5-8 junior Jacob Brumbeloe, who tapped it past Nardozzi for his team-best 19th goal.
“That’s what he does all the time,” said Hollingsworth, a 2000 Durant graduate who will try to become the first Hillsborough County soccer coach — boys or girls — to lead his alma mater to a state crown. “The guy just runs and runs and runs. He scores the effort goals, being where he should be on set pieces. He does that for us.”
Gaither, making its second state tourney appearance under coach Eric Sims, tied the score at 2-all in the 60th minute on Charlie Delmar’s header off a Jacob Snidle free kick.
Zachary Wheeler had given the Cowboys the early lead with his team-best 24th goal. Durant responded 11 minutes later when senior Andres Plata took a David Eisenhauer pass and lofted a shot from the right corner of the box to the net’s upper left corner.
“Maybe it was the kiss of death for us to get a goal that early,” Sims said. “We kind of sat back and they took it to us physically, dominated the game, especially in the middle of the field.”