TAMPA — Palm Harbor University coach Alex Delgado was a junior on the Hurricanes' first state championship squad in 2002.
Delgado, who was a sweeper, understands how valuable a lockdown defense can be to a team's title hopes. It's a characteristic the 2008-09 Hurricanes have adopted during their recent playoff run. Entering Friday's Class 5A semifinal against Monarch, PHU had yet to allow a goal to three regional opponents: Leto, Jesuit, Seminole.
Now, the Hurricanes can add Monarch to that list.
Behind a tenacious defense that kept possession from Monarch leading scorer Felipe Nascimento and allowed the Knights only three shots on goal, PHU prevailed 2-0 to advance to the school's fourth state championship.
The Hurricanes (23-4-4), who won state titles in 2002 and 2006, hope to capture their third championship tonight at 7:30 against Freedom.
"That was a solid performance defensively," said PHU's Sam Venker, who anchors the Hurricanes' back line. "…We just try to defend first as a whole team — everyone defends. Then late in the game as our fitness knocks in, the fitness we do early in the season helps a lot to be able to get that late goal."
Both teams struggled to mount any semblance of offense in the first 60 minutes, but after the second water break, PHU created the better scoring opportunities and capitalized.
In the 67th minute, Ben Sweat received a pass in the middle of the box from P.J. McDonald. With a defender on his back, Sweat wheeled left and drilled a left-footed shot toward the opposite post past Monarch goalkeeper Diego Cardoso. Sweat's blast was PHU's first shot on goal of the game.
"We were getting closer and closer and closer as the clock kept winding," Delgado said. "I told the guys at the water break 'just keep going, 19 more minutes.' …Ben finally calmed himself down in the box and got it on goal. What a great finish."
Until Sweat's goal, the 13th of the season for the junior, it appeared neither side would penetrate. PHU and Monarch (18-6-2) had five shots on goal combined.
"It was definitely getting a little nerve-wracking there," Delgado admitted. "…We've been working on putting teams away, and it just seemed for a little bit, for about a couple minutes there that maybe it wasn't going to be our night, we weren't going to get that one opportunity."
Six minutes after going ahead 1-0, PHU forward Matthew Tobin stole an errant pass in Monarch territory and sent a cross into the box to the feet of Andrew Smith, who was knocked down by Cardoso after gaining possession.
The Hurricanes were awarded a penalty kick, which Tobin calmly converted to give PHU an insurmountable 2-0 lead.
"The boys definitely took the moment and made it theirs," Delgado said. "…I think that's what it came down to in the end was we executed in crunch time, which we've been doing for literally the last month."
Freedom 1, Niceville 0: Freshman midfielder Evan Kruk scored the biggest goal in school history, firing in the winner in the 61st minute. "It's unimaginable," Kruk said. "It's hard to describe being a freshman and scoring in a semifinals of states."
The Patriots (17-2-5) clamped down on Niceville (24-2-3), which was limited to five shots.
Berkeley Prep 3, Pine Crest 0: Berkeley Prep will play for its first title since 2004 after topping Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest. The Bucs (24-2) broke through in the 10th minute when midfielder Eri Jacobs fed forward J.D. Post, who blasted a quick shot past Panthers keeper Wyatt Zeller. T.J. Roehn and Jacobs scored the other goals.
Staff writer Izzy Gould contributed to this report.
Battle for bragging rights?
Freedom and Palm Harbor U. meet today in a battle of bay area powers. It's not the first time Hillsborough and Pinellas county teams have met in a soccer final. Pinellas holds a 5-2 edge.
1982: Seminole 2, Leto 1
1989: Clearwater Central Catholic 4, Tampa Catholic 1
1996: CCC 1, Jesuit 0
1998: Jesuit 4, Osceola 1
1999: Jesuit 5, Osceola 2
1997: CCC 4, TC 1
2006: PHU 2, Bloomingdale 0