NEW PORT RICHEY — As Hudson’s players walked off the field from Wednesday’s 4-1 win over River Ridge, coach Stephen Jones wasn’t sure his freshman-heavy team understood the magnitude of its Class 3A, District 8 upset at Gulf.
“This is the biggest game in our program’s history,” Jones said. “Smile a little bit.”
Jones and his Cobras (13-5-2) had plenty to smile about after clinching the fifth playoff appearance in school history. The victory also snapped River Ridge’s streak of seven postseason berths in a row and ended the season for last winter’s region finalists.
River Ridge (15-5-2) controlled the opening minutes, but Hudson dominated the rest of the way. The Cobras tried a cross in the sixth minute that skated through the Royal Knights’ defense and off Hudson’s Dominique Cirnigliaro before freshman Caroline Dimonda tapped it into the net.
“I think we came into the game very confident,” Jones said. “I think that kind of sealed it for us. It really let us know (we could compete) and helped settle us into the game.”
The goals kept coming. River Ridge failed to clear a ball midway through the first half, and Brooke McKillen took advantage with an easy score. A rocket from Sarah Staley pushed the advantage to 3-0 at the half.
Dimonda added another goal with 19 minutes left, and River Ridge’s Kendra Secrest added a goal with 3:27 remaining to prevent the shutout.
The Cobras advance to Friday’s district final against Mitchell, which continued its season as the North Suncoast’s most dominant team with a 2-0 win over injury-plagued Gulf.
The Mustangs (22-0-1) got two goals from standout forward Amanda Hayes — one off Danielle Gottwik’s free kick midway through the first half, and another off a Gina Davis pass with 2:43 left in the game — to pull away. The Buccaneers didn’t get a shot on goal during the first 50 minutes.
Gulf goalkeeper Caitlin Greene kept her team in the game with 15 saves.
4A-8: Wiregrass fights for OT win
LUTZ — Senior Berlin Waters rescued top-seeded Wiregrass Ranch, scoring both goals including the winner 4:05 into sudden death as the Bulls beat Sickles 2-1 Wednesday night. Host Steinbrenner had a much easier time in the second 4A-8 semifinal, defeating Gaither 6-1.
Credit Sickles for making Wiregrass Ranch’s night a shaky one. Nichole Amador’s goal in the eighth minute stunned the Bulls, who had beaten Sickles 5-0 during the regular season.
“We were like, ‘Is this really happening?’ We knew we had to pick up the pace,” said USF-bound Wiregrass forward A.J. Blount.
Sickles took the 1-0 lead to halftime then packed into a defensive stance, taking only one shot and that on a defensive misplay. But with 15 minutes left the Bulls (18-2) saw their frantic efforts rewarded.
After a wild sequence that saw the Bulls get off six shots, Waters poked in what was a third rebound try off a corner kick.
“I was freaking out; there were so many players packed in the box and the ball was just bobbling around,” said Waters.
In overtime Sickles moved Sam Knowles back into an offensive position and in the opening minute she drew a foul just outside the penalty box. But her free kick sailed a couple feet over the net. A minute later Sickles goalie Brooke Salas made her fifth point-blank save of the night.
But shortly after Blount turned and fired a shot that went square off the right post then bounced directly to Waters for the tap-in.
Steinbrenner (14-4) looked sharp in running out to a 4-0 halftime lead. Danielle Eule and Alexis Bredeau had two goals apiece with Jessie Taylor and Madison Whitmill getting the others.
Gaither (7-6-3) got on the board with 12 minutes left on a 30-yard free kick by Haley Knowles.
4A-4: Springstead earns OT upset
SPRING HILL — After a season out of the fray, Springstead is back where it has been nine times before — the state playoffs.
The Eagles upset Forest 3-2 in overtime of the Class 4A, District 4 semifinals on the shoulders of Tara Vasquez’s golden goal header.
“The bar has definitely been raised for us,” Springstead coach Scott Wern said. “We’re not trying to build a team here. We’re trying to build a program.”
Springstead (17-3-1) split its season series with the Wildcats (16-4). The Eagles came out motivated and pushed the tempo early, resulting in a goal less than 10 minutes into regulation by Haleigh McDuff.
On a corner kick rebound, Erin Blackwell picked up her seventh assist of the season by passing back to McDuff for her fourth goal. While Springstead continued to control possession, Forest keeper Rosa Torres (16 saves) seemed to get her hands on almost every ball shot in her direction.
The Wildcat offense backed her up with 11 minutes remaining in the first half when Ella Khan drilled a 30-yard line drive over the outstretched hands of Springstead keeper Emma Betters (four saves).
The ball stayed in Forest territory for most of the second half as well, and only about four minutes before the water break, Sammie Betters found an opening up the sideline. Betters, who entered the game with 46 goals, made a move on three defenders before a brilliant pass to Vasquez in the box to give Springstead the 2-1 lead. The assist was the 25th on the season for the freshman star.
In the blink of an eye, Forest answered. The ball dropped, and with the Eagles defenders on their heels, Forest’s Ali Pritchard snuck one by Emma Betters.
“We got very complacent whenever we got the lead,” Wern said. “We need to work on things defensively and make some adjustments.”
Multiple scoring threats by Springstead continued throughout the final 20 minutes of regulation, but Torres also stepped up her game.
Frustration set in for the Wildcat defense as well, which resulted in a red card for Forest’s Reiley Hutchinson, giving the Eagles a one-player advantage with 3:42 to go.
Four minutes into overtime it all paid off. Nicole Morolla was given a corner kick opportunity for Springstead and found a cutting Vasquez in front of the net. Vasquez got her head on the ball solidly and past Torres for her 27th goal and the winning score.
3A-7: LOL, Sunlake still on hot streak
WESLEY CHAPEL — Land O’Lakes edged host Wesley Chapel 1-0 in overtime and Sunlake shut out Pasco 2-0 in Wednesday’s Class 3A, District 7 semifinals to set up a match between the tournament’s two seeds.
“It was tough and we talked about the third game,” Land O’Lakes coach Vicky King said of having to beat Wesley Chapel for a third time this season. “That third game is the toughest.”
A goal-mouth scramble in the small box in the final minute of overtime resulted in Catherine Gray’s eighth goal of the season. Mitsy Audate made a looping cross toward the net from the right side and Savanna Ronk headed the ball, which popped over Wesley Chapel goalkeeper Aspen Cooper and was deflected into the net off Gray’s chest.
The Gators (16-4-4) had nine shots and did not allow a shot on net with keepers Arie Bailey and Lauren Arrabito sharing a shutout.
Sunlake (10-7-4) capped its first winning season by clinching the school’s first playoff berth. In the first semifinal, Sunlake to a goal in each period to back Maya Kamat’s ninth shutout. In the 15th minute, Cassidy Kallenborn kicked in her seventh of the season from point-blank range past keeper Caylee Watkins off a centering pass from Laura Galindo.
Midway through the second half, Galindo lofted a long pass from the right side to Emily Higgins, who tucked the ball under Watkins for her ninth goal.
3A-6: Sharks clinch berth with shutout
Coming into last season, Nature Coast had never been to the state playoffs.
After Wednesday night’s dominant 4-0 victory over host Leesburg in the Class 3A, District 6 semifinals at H.O. Dabney Stadium, the Sharks have clinched their second berth in two years.
Nature Coast (15-2-1) continued its command of the district, pushing its record to 9-0 over such opponents on its schedule. With former leading scorer Emily Myers’ knee injury, freshman Chelsea Reid stepped in to fill her role next to Sylvanna Paonessa on the team’s top offensive line.
“The other coaches and I were just talking about how impressive she has been,” Nature Coast coach Lisa Masserio said. “Chelsea plays with tireless enthusiasm, and she’s always ready to go.”
Reid scored right after the water break to get things started for Nature Coast, then assisted on Paonessa’s 28th goal of the season to give the Sharks a 2-0 lead going into the locker room. Coming out, Leesburg (12-8-1) attempted to adjust to the Sharks’ physical style to no avail.
The freshman wasn’t finished, opening the second half with her sixth goal of the season and her third in two games of the tournament.
The three-goal advantage seemed like enough, but Zavana Schmit iced it for the Sharks late in the game.
With six saves, the win was also Nature Coast keeper Sam Oliveira’s 13th shutout this year, a total more impressive to the team as it heads into Friday’s championship match against Eustis.
“Defense is our strength, and we’ve done well on that front,” Masserio said. “Nature Coast girls soccer has never won a district championship, and that’s what we want.”
Correspondents Darek Sharp, Steve Lee and Derek J. LaRiviere contributed to this report.