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Wed. February 9, 2011 | John C. Cotey | Email

SPC soccer traveling most unlikely path

ST. PETERSBURG — Emily DiVito doesn’t hold back when looking back.

Describing St. Petersburg Catholic, she goes from disappointing to discouraging to dreadful.

She remembers the 1-4 start.

She remembers The Tournament, and the Barons still speak of that in hushed tones, as it did not end well.

She remembers going into the district tournament with a 6-11 record and ready to play Clearwater Central Catholic, a team that was 18-1-1.

“I thought I was playing my last game,” she said.

Turns out, SPC’s season was just getting started.

Thursday at 12:45, the Bad News Barons, as they are affectionately called, will be playing in the Class 3A state semifinals.

•••

It starts here, in the SPC locker room. Coach Gary Kolb is borrowing Herb Brooks’ speech, one that willed the U.S. hockey team over the Russians.

He needs a Miracle On Grass.

He told them if they played CCC 10 times, the Marauders would win nine of them.

“But not this game,” he said. “Not tonight.”

Not tonight: SPC 1, Clearwater Central Catholic 0.

Had it been football, or basketball, or baseball even, it would be called the upset of the decade.

The Bad News Barons were outshot 18-1 by the county’s most-storied program, the county’s best team, a nationally ranked squad and state favorite.

The one shot?

A goal, from 35 yards out, by Olivia Wilkinson.

Senior defender Alyee Gilbert said she couldn’t believe it when she saw it; goalkeeper Maggie Dalessio said her eyes welled up with tears.

“It was,” Gilbert said, “a glimmer of hope.”

With 15 minutes remaining, the Bad News Barons had a 1-0 lead, and they would fiercely hang on to it with everything they had.

“Best. Game. Ever,” Dalessio said.

•••

It came together against CCC, and the three region playoff wins since, because the team finally jelled.

That may be as cliche as it gets, but Kolb spent all season trying to find a combination up front that could score goals. He put his best, fastest, most skilled players there, desperate for the right combination.

“It’s like we were trying too hard to score,” Dalessio said, “and it wasn’t working.”

So before districts, Kolb decided the Bad News Barons, to have a chance, would win with defense.

He took DiVito, who had played forward and midfield, and Gilbert, who had played forward and midfield, and put them on his back row with Liz Prather.

The Bad News Barons haven’t allowed a goal since.

And the scoring? Still not prolific, but timely and spectacular.

Wilkinson’s goal against CCC may go down in school lore.

Freshman call-up Erin Hillman scored on a beauty to beat Tampa Catholic in the district final.

And another freshman, Hannah Dawkins, scored the first one in a 2-0 win over Bishop Verot in the region final. It was another 35-yarder; the keeper never had a chance.

“Incredible,” said Prather, leading a debate over what may now be the two greatest goals in SPC history.

•••

Getting here was hard.

The not-yet-Bad News Barons lost the player who would have been their leading scorer on the first day of practice, when she decided not to play.

Then they went to Sarasota, for The Tournament.

The girls joke the experience left scars.

Last year, they had finished second, in penalty kicks. This year, Bloomingdale, Wharton, Plant and Newsome sent the Bad News Barons into the holidays without a win and sporting a 4-10 overall record.

Chico’s Bail Bonds might have requested a refund had it been sponsoring this group.

Against Newsome, the Bad News Barons surrendered four corner kick goals in 14 minutes, so Kolb yanked the starters. That left with him only 10 players, and when the ref asked him if he had another player to put in, he said no.

“We’ll play with 10,” he said.

And if senior Shannon McClenathan hadn’t gutted it out despite an injury, he would have played with nine.

“It was chaos,” Prather said.

Most athletes will tell you, no matter what, whether or not they believe it, there was always a glimmer of hope.

Not the Bad News Barons.

•••

Thursday’s opponent, Lake Highland Prep, beat SPC 1-0 this season, but a handful of players missed that game and the team looks completely different now.

A win could mean a shot at undefeated Gulliver Prep, the clear state favorite.

You know, kind of like CCC was.

“We think we can beat anybody now,” Prather said. “We didn’t think this was possible earlier. But now? The sky’s the limit.”

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