PALM HARBOR — It was a game between the county’s top boys soccer programs that featured plenty at stake, including the top seed in the Class 6A, District 7 tournament and a berth in the Pinellas County Athletic Conference title game as the north county representative.
As expected, Countryside and Palm Harbor University played a low-scoring, tight contest Tuesday. The first score did not come until the 23rd minute when Nikolai Hammer got past the keeper to give the Cougars a 1-0 lead.
It turned out to be the winning goal as Countryside’s defense did the rest in a 2-0 victory over its fiercest rival. With the win, the Cougars claim the district’s top seed and already clinched the PCAC’s north division with one conference game remaining.
“I got a lucky break and had to take advantage of the opportunity that I had,” Hammer said of his winning goal.
In the second half the Hurricanes were more aggressive but were unable to capitalize on limited scoring opportunities.
Finally, desperation seemed to tighten like a noose, strangling PHU’s patience and accuracy.
Some shots went wide or high. Other balls deflected off the goal post. Players held up their arms in exasperation and put their hands to their face.
Near the end of regulation, the Hurricanes (13-2-2) found a few open spaces in front of the net. But Countryside keeper Hunter Maricle was able to thwart them, including a critical save off a free kick in the final two minutes.
“That save off the free kick was pretty big for us,” Maricle said. “It helped us win and preserve the shutout in a big rivalry game.”
The Cougars (14-1-1) added an insurance goal when Derya Ekren broke loose to knock in a shot with less than a minute remaining.
This is the second time Countryside has beaten PHU this season. The teams could meet as many as three more times, including the final of next week’s Hurricane Watch tournament.
“I think we dominated the first half,” Cougars coach Dave Sica said. “But Palm Harbor kind of took us out of our rhythm in the second half. Our keeper played well, but it was a group effort on defense. We really had to work.”