MORE from our HomeTeam writers.
PALM HARBOR — A meaningless goal became invaluable for Countryside at the Hurricane Watch tournament.
Trailing 4-0 in the final moments of a blowout loss to Mitchell on Tuesday, Countryside’s Derya Ekren placed a well-struck free kick into goal with four minutes remaining to give the Cougars their only score in a 4-1 loss.
That goal, however, gave the Cougars the edge in a tournament system that rewards each goal and shutout with a point. Coupled with the eight points the Cougars earned Monday courtesy of a 1-0 blanking of Lakewood (six points for the victory, a point each for the goal and shutout), Countryside (nine points) advanced to Friday’s championship by a point over tournament host Palm Harbor University.
Countryside will get a rematch against Mitchell in Friday’s final at 6:30 p.m. The Mustangs won their second game in a row since coming off a 20-day layoff, scoring three times in the second half. On Monday, Mitchell defeated PHU 1-0.
“The past couple of years we’ve been in this tournament has been a barometer for how our postseason goes,” Mitchell coach Oscar Ubillus said. “… We needed good results. It’s good for morale. It’s good for confidence.”
Mitchell (16-1-3) had only five shots on goal against Countryside (13-7-1).
“Usually one out of eight is normal, maybe one out of six,” Ubillus said. “Shooting 80 percent is pretty good.”
Jason Leslie put the Mustangs on the board in the 35th minute with a wicked left-footed strike from the top of the 18 that curved into goal and left Countryside goalkeeper Hunter Maricle flat-footed.
With 28 minutes to go, Carson Whittaker pounced on a rebound for a 2-0 Mitchell lead. Leslie scored his second goal in the 70th minute and Ryan Fries made it 4-0 three minutes later.
In the nightcap, PHU found unlikely scorers in freshman Austin Sweat and sophomore Stirling Lombard to overcome Lakewood 2-1.
The goals were the first of their high school career.
“That was awesome for those two,” Hurricanes coach Alex Delgado said.
Lombard’s goal came in the closing seconds with the game tied at 1. Lombard trapped the ball in front of the goal and buried a shot past goalkeeper Jackson Sheddan (eight saves).
Sweat’s goal, which gave the Hurricanes (14-5-3) a 1-0 lead with 18 minutes left, was nearly a carbon copy of their second. Sweat corralled a throw-in at the top of the 18 and threaded a shot through a bevy of players.
“Both of (PHU’s) goals tonight were absolutely gorgeous,” Lakewood coach Rob Bauer said. “They both came right to the dead center; their guys collected it and pulled the trigger.”
Lakewood (6-5-3) answered five minutes after Sweat’s score when Yahn Effiom chested down a pass in the box and knocked it into goal to tie the game at 1.