PALM HARBOR — Paige Lombard, a captain and four-year-starter, graduated. So, too, did Renee Huy, one of the area’s top defenders. Kelly Phipps, one of the team’s top scorers, moved to Ohio.
All were significant losses for Palm Harbor University, enough for skeptics to wonder if the Hurricanes would be able to get back to the state final four after a two-year absence.
But here is PHU, still dominant, still undefeated. The Hurricanes are 16-0-0 after beating Osceola 2-0 Wednesday for their second straight Pinellas County Athletic Conference title.
It is the first time PHU has gone unbeaten and untied in the regular season, quite an accomplishment for a program that has won five state titles.
“This is a real strong team,” Hurricanes coach John Planamenta said. “These girls have jelled and played well together. They’ve all stepped up in spots where we needed them, too, and they’ve been very consistent.”
Much like its state championship teams of the past, PHU is relying on air-tight defense and timely scoring. The back line is led by defenders such as Quinn Lombard and Sarah Raymond. They have helped the Hurricanes allow just eight goals.
“We’ve really been focused on defense all season,” Lombard said. “It’s something that we’ve stressed.”
Others such as Skye Barba have provided the scoring. She had a goal against Osceola in the conference championship game and scored twice against East Lake in a pivotal game last month that helped clinch the No. 1 seed for PHU.
“We’ve all been playing our roles well and coming together,” Barba said. “We’re trying to go far in the playoffs. The unbeaten record in the regular season is nice, but our greater goal is to win the district tournament and the state title.”
To keep their perfect record intact, the Hurricanes have to slog through a series of tough games in Class 5A, District 8, including a possible final against rival East Lake. Then there are region games against some of Hillsborough’s best programs and a possible rematch against the Eagles.
“This is soccer and anything can happen,” Planamenta said. “Sure, we’ve won them all, but we can be beaten on any night.”
In fact, it was a loss that has served as a powerful motivator this season. In last year’s region semifinals, PHU lost to East Lake, marking the first time the Hurricanes had lost to their rival in three seasons.
And it was the only loss of the season.
“That loss is always on our minds,” Lombard said. “Really, any loss is motivation. We know how good East Lake is and we have to be ready for them. But we have to be ready for everybody.”
Saturday: No. 5 St. Petersburg at No. 4 Countryside, 1; No. 6 North Port at No. 3 Sarasota Riverview, 1; No. 7 Pinellas Park at No. 2 East Lake
Jan. 17: Countryside-St. Pete winner at No. 1 Palm Harbor University, 7; North Port-Riverview winner vs. East Lake-Pinellas Park winner, 7*
Jan. 18: Final at TBD, 7**
*Higher seeds host semis
**Final is in Sarasota County if a Sarasota team makes the final. If two Pinellas teams make the final, the higher seed hosts.
Class 4A-10 at Seminole
Friday: No. 4 Northeast vs. No. 5 Clearwater, 5; No. 3 Largo vs. No. 6 Dixie Hollins, 7
Jan. 17: No. 2 Tarpon Springs vs. Largo-Dixie winner, 5; No. 1 Seminole vs. Northeast-Clearwater winner, 7
Jan. 18: Final, 7
Friday: No. 8 Gibbs at No. 1 Palmetto, 7; No. 5 Lakewood at No. 4 Boca Ciega, 7; No. 7 Bradenton Bayshore at No. 2 Osceola, 7; No. 6 Bradenton Southeast at No. 3 Dunedin, 7*
Jan. 17: Palmetto-Gibbs winner vs. Boca Ciega-Lakewood winner, 7; Osceola-Bayshore winner vs. Dunedin-Southeast winner, 7
Jan. 18: Final, 7**
*Higher seeds hosts semis
**Final is in Manatee County if a Manatee team makes the final. If two Pinellas teams make the final, the higher seed hosts.
Class 2A-9 at Clearwater Central Catholic
Tuesday: No. 4 Holy Names vs. No. 5 Tampa Catholic, 7
Jan. 16: No. 1 St. Petersburg Catholic vs. AHN-TC winner, 5; No. 2 CCC vs. No. 3 Berkeley Prep, 7
Jan. 18: Final, 7
Tuesday: No. 5 Carrollwood Day at No. 4 Seffner Christian, TBD; No. 7 Bishop McLaughlin at No. 2 Calvary Christian, 4; No. 6 Cambridge at No. 3 Indian Rocks Christian, TBD
Jan. 17 at Calvary Christian: Calvary-Bishop winner vs. IRC-Cambridge winner, 5; No. 1 Tampa Prep vs. Seffner-CDS winner, 7
Jan. 18 at Calvary Christian: Final, 7
Class A-8 at Out-of-Door
Tuesday: No. 4 Sarasota Christian vs. No. 5 Northside Christian, 1; No. 1 St. Stephen’s vs. No. 8 Keswick Christian, 3; No. 2 Shorecrest vs. No. 7 Bradenton Christian, 5; No. 3 ODA vs. No. 6 Canterbury, 7
Jan. 17: Shorecrest-Bradenton Christian winner vs. ODA-Canterbury winner, 5; Sarasota Christian-Northside Christian winner vs. St. Stephen’s-Keswick Christian winner, 7
Jan. 18: Final, 7
Bob Putnam can be reached at email@example.com.