What separates Palm Harbor University from most of its Pinellas County girls soccer counterparts? State titles and playoff exposure, for starters.
In the past eight seasons, the Hurricanes, loaded with superior talent, have advanced to the state final four six times, winning three titles (2006, 2009-10).
Hitched up with an inviting stretch of opponents this season, the gap between PHU and the rest has been noticeable, so much that the team is 15-0-3.
It’s no coincidence that two of those three ties have come against district opponents.
If there’s one thing the Hurricanes have in common with Countryside, East Lake, North Port, Pinellas Park, Sarasota Riverview and St. Petersburg — and what truly sets them apart from everyone else in Pinellas — look no further than their district.
PHU’s affiliation with Class 5A, District 8, yields few easy nights. To win the title, a 5A-8 team must slog through games so demanding that even the relative softies can jump up and bite at any time.
The Hurricanes tied the Eagles in their tournament at the beginning of the season (the game did not count toward district standings) and played to a tie last month against the Green Devils.
“I’d say it’s one of the toughest districts in the state in this classification,” Hurricanes coach John Planamenta said.
That statement bears directly on rankings and postseason performance. Because the Hurricanes can be sidetracked by any district opponent, they could not afford to enter this season with their eyes trained far down the road. They know they must first run the district obstacle course before talking about a No. 1 finish.
“Every one of these teams are tough,” Planamenta said. “We’ve had a lot of close games. We played Countryside and it was 1-0.”
It is a tough task for 5A-8 teams to stretch their season well into February. In the past four seasons, five of the seven teams in the district have made the playoffs at least once.
PHU has the No. 1 seed this year. Its toughest challenge will likely come from No. 2 East Lake.
The Eagles are 11-1-3 with their lone loss coming against the Hurricanes. Two of East Lake’s three ties came against district opponents (PHU and Riverview).
The strongest teams in most county districts are led by strong scorers. In Class 4A-10, Seminole’s Gina Hayduke, last season’s Times’ player of the year, has 21 goals. In 2A-9, Clearwater Central Catholic’s Kaitlin Parker has 24 goals and nine assists.
Even in 5A-8, the Eagles’ Madison Del Duca can score goals in bunches, as evidenced by the four she scored against St. Petersburg last week.
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are led by midfielder Paige Lombard, a Miami commit, and the rest of the defense. (Lombard has been sidelined recently with an ankle injury but is expected to play in the tournament.) PHU has allowed just six goals all season and has six straight shutouts.
“Our defense has been strong all year,” Planamenta said. “We have scorers, too. We just haven’t been able to capitalize on as many chances as we would like.”
It doesn’t get any easier for the 5A-8 teams that reach the postseason. Looming in regionals are teams from Hillsborough County such as defending state finalist Newsome and top-seeded Plant.
“It’s going to be a fight from here on out,” Planamenta said.
Class 5A-8 at various sites
Saturday: No. 7 Pinellas Park at No. 2 East Lake, 1; No. 6 Countryside at No. 3 St. Petersburg, 1; No. 5 North Port at No. 4 Sarasota Riverview, 1
Thursday (higher seed hosts): Riverview/North Port winner at No. 1 Palm Harbor University, 7; St. Petersburg/Countryside winner vs. East Lake/Pinellas Park winner, 7
Jan. 20 (higher seed hosts): Final, 7
Class 4A-10 at various sites
Saturday: No. 5 Northeast at No. 4 Largo, 11; No. 6 Dixie Hollins vs. No. 3 Clearwater at Seminole, 11
Thursday at Seminole: No. 2 Tarpon Springs vs. Clearwater/Dixie Hollins winner, 5; No. 1 Seminole vs. Largo/Northeast winner, 7
Jan. 20: Final, 7
Class 3A-10 at various sites
Saturday: No. 8 Gibbs at No. 1 Osceola, 1; No. 5 Bradenton Southeast at No. 4 Dunedin, 1; No. 7 Boca Ciega at No. 2 Palmetto, 1; No. 6 Bradenton Bayshore at No. 3 Lakewood, 1
Thursday (higher seed hosts): Dunedin/Southeast winner vs. Osceola/Gibbs winner, 7; Lakewood/Bayshore winner vs. Palmetto/Bogie winner, 7
Jan. 20 (higher seed hosts): Final, 7
Class 2A-9 at Tampa Catholic
Tuesday: No. 5 Holy Names vs. No. 4 Tampa Catholic, 6
Wednesday: No. 3 Berkeley Prep vs. No. 2 St. Petersburg Catholic, 5; No. 1 Clearwater Central Catholic vs. AHN/TC winner, 7
Thursday: Final, 7
Class A-8 at various sites
Tuesday at Keswick Christian: No. 4 Sarasota Christian vs. No. 5 Northside Christian, 5; No. 3 Out-of-Door vs. No. 6 Keswick, 7
Tuesday at Bradenton Christian: No. 2 St. Stephen’s vs. No. 7 Bradenton Christian, 7
Thursday at Keswick: ODA/Keswick winner vs. St. Stephen’s/Bradenton Christian winner, 5; No. 1 Shorecrest vs. Sarasota Christian/Northside Christian winner, 7
Jan. 20 at Keswick: Final, 7
Class A-7 at various sites
Tuesday: No. 8 Academy at the Lakes at No. 1 Tampa Prep, 7; No. 7 Seffner Christian at No. 2 Bishop McLaughlin, 7; No. 6 Calvary Christian at No. 3 Carrollwood Day, 7; No. 5 Indian Rocks Christian at No. 4 Cambridge, 7
Thursday at Tampa Prep: Bishop McLaughlin/Seffner winner vs. Carrollwood Day/Calvary winner, 6; Tampa Prep/AATL winner vs. Cambridge/IRC winner, 8
Jan. 20 at Tampa Prep: Final, 7