Let the true season begin. Every girls soccer game to this point was an opportunity to sharpen skills, shift lineups and tackle tests such as playing the state's top competition. Losing games — district games — only impacted seeding for the tournament. With tourney games kicking off this week, we look at some key elements that could make or break a season:
Royal Knights endure
One of the most stunning losses for River Ridge came when rival Land O'Lakes upset the Royal Knights on their home turf 2-1 on Nov. 24. River Ridge had dominated the series in recent years. The Royal Knights rebounded with seven consecutive victories, outscoring opponents by a combined 23-2 margin, including a 1-0 win at Land O'Lakes on Dec. 18. Jenny Karl leads the Knights with 11 goals and seven assists.
Then came Wednesday's 4-0 loss to nationally ranked Lakeland George Jenkins. The game was scoreless until the Royal Knights went down a player (keeper Lisa Jadick) after she was issued a red card.
So can River Ridge rebound?
Consider: River Ridge holds the top seed in 4A-8, has earned four consecutive playoff berths and has been the top team on the North Suncoast this season.
Red alert: Gators' D
Land O'Lakes has one of the most perplexing records (9-4-6) in recent memory. The last team to score on the Gators? River Ridge, in a 1-0 win Dec. 18. That means the Gators have held opponents scoreless in the past four games, including a 1-0 win Thursday against Hudson. The really telling statistic is goals against: seven — in 19 games. Credit the quartet of Natalie Fontanes, Brittany Nieves, Molly Short and Keke Potts as one of the dominant back lines on the North Suncoast. And of course, a nod goes to keeper Tara Marshall, too.
Wright loss, wrong time
Mitchell could not have hoped for a better season. The Mustangs were 13-1-1 through December before Shelby Wright's early graduation to enroll at Nova Southeastern. Since her departure, there has been trouble in the midfield. A January stretch of games scheduled to test Mitchell heading into the district tournament became more of a proving ground and time to tinker.
The result was losses to Tampa Prep and St. Petersburg Catholic, and wins against Tampa Catholic and Sunlake. Of course, Mitchell is still stocked with talent, including North Suncoast points leader Marissa Russo with 62.
After a 1-2-1 start, Hudson rattled off a 13-game win streak before Thursday's 1-0 loss at Land O'Lakes. Should Cobras fans be concerned? Maybe.
A common occurrence for teams with long layoffs is a drop in chemistry. Hudson will have gone almost a month having played just one game when it takes the field as the 4A-7 top seed Wednesday.
The Bulls' eye
Wiregrass Ranch freshman A.J. Blount has had a remarkable season. She leads the North Suncoast with 28 goals after wins vs. Anclote and Pasco last week. In terms of the North Suncoast freshman scoring record, former Land O'Lakes star Stacy Bishop scored 46 goals and wrapped up her high school career in 2003 as the all-time leading scorer with 192. Still, Blount's talent has helped the Bulls to a solid season.
Hope springs eternal for Springstead
Can Springstead turn around its playoff woes? The Eagles, who boast Hernando County's scoring leader in Cristina Passafaro (eight goals, five assists), have reached the playoffs seven times, and each time Springstead lost its first-round game. Now in a new district (5A-7), not only could the Eagles reach region for the first time since 2008, but win the program's first playoff game. Of course, they'll have to win a semifinal vs. rival Central first.
Izzy Gould can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 421-3886.
5A-7 at Springstead
Tuesday: Springstead (1) vs. Central (4), 7; Wednesday: Ocala Forest (2) vs. Ocala West Port (3), 7 at Forest; Thursday: final, 7
4A-8 at River Ridge
Monday: Hernando (9) vs. Sunlake (8), 7; Tuesday: Zephyrhills (7) vs. Land O'Lakes (2), 6; River Ridge (1) vs. Hernando-Sunlake winner, 7:45; Wednesday: Nature Coast (6) vs. Lecanto (3), 6; Wiregrass Ranch (5) vs. Citrus (4), 7:45; Thurs-day: Zephyrhills-Land O'Lakes winner vs. Nature Coast-Lecanto winner, 6; River Ridge-Sunlake/Hernando winner vs. Wiregrass-Citrus winner, 7:45; Friday: final, 7
4A-7 at Hudson
Tuesday: Pasco (4) vs. Ridgewood (5), 4; Gulf (3) vs. Anclote (6), 6; Mitchell (2) vs. Wesley Chapel (7), 8; Wednesday: Gulf-Anclote winner vs. Mitchell-Wesley Chapel winner, 5; Hudson (1) vs. Pasco-Ridgewood winner, 7; Friday: final, 7
2A-9 at Tampa Prep
Tuesday: Carrollwood Day (4) vs. Calvary Christian (5), 7; Thursday: Bishop McLaughlin (2) vs. IRC (3), 5; Tampa Prep (1) vs. Carrollwood-Calvary winner, 7; Friday: final, 7