ZEPHYRHILLS —Looks like the Land O’Lakes girls take messages to heart.
Exhorted to get an early jump on rival Sunlake, the Gators could not have carried through that charge any better. Samantha Epifanio scored 52 seconds in and Land O’Lakes controlled the action for a 4-0 win Friday. The 3A-8 district championship is the third title in a row for the Gators and ninth overall.
Catherine Gray broke in down the left sideline to slide a cross to Epifanio, a freshman whose speed harassed Sunlake’s defense much of the night.
“Well, we said to score early. Luckily we did because you never know if they’re going to get nervous, maybe feel the pressure of districts,” said Gators coach Vicky King.
Turned out she had nothing to fear. Land O’Lakes (23-1) outshot the Seahawks 25-3. The three meetings between the schools have gotten progressively less competitive this season.
“When you lose your best player (Cassidy Place) to graduation and two of your other best get hurt (Emily Higgins, Cassidy Kallenborn), it makes it tough,” said Sunlake coach Jami Finan. “Those freshmen out there tonight played extremely hard.”
Place went the early-graduation route to Saint Leo but was on the sideline serving as an assistant. Sunlake’s top remaining player, Carly Hill, sat out the first 25 minutes with a hyperextended knee suffered Monday. She gave it a go but was clearly not at full speed.
In addition freshman defender Maddisen Traver was sick, to the point where she tried to play after a rough halftime but Finan pulled her immediately.
The only thing slowing the top-seeded Gators was Sunlake freshman goalie Landon Carter. She made nine saves in the second half alone, and twice got help from teammates Traver and Emma Hanyok (another freshman) clearing shots off the line.
One of Carter’s better saves came in the 32nd minute on a rocket shot by Victoria Cannata, but on the resulting corner kick Lacy Nasello banged home a header for 2-0. Nasello has been the defensive leader since joining the team in December after a dislocated knee.
“I think that (time off) has given her more energy. She gives us a little spark out there,” King said.
Cannata put quality shots on goal all night before finally solving Carter in the 65th minute on a breakaway.
“When you’re missing over and over like I was, the key is to stay calm. On that goal I knew I had time, so I just looked up and slotted it by her,” Cannata said.
Lindsay Pearl’s rebound goal finished off the scoring.
Sunlake (16-4-3) still makes the playoffs and was somewhat surprised to learn its opponent would be Nature Coast, after the Sharks upset top-seeded Hudson in 3A-7. That sets up Land O’Lakes to host Hudson.