TAMPA — As Palm Harbor University coach Alex Delgado stood watching the Pepin Stadium clock at the University of Tampa, nervously counting down the final seconds with his Hurricanes holding a slim lead in their Class 5A state final against Freedom, PHU players gathered around the bench, hoping to catch the unsuspecting second-year coach with the celebratory Gatorade shower.
Three coolers were sent toward the nattily attired Delgado in his trademark black suit. All three missed the mark. It was about the only thing the Hurricanes did unsuccessfully all night.
Behind first-half goals from Alexandre Millette and Andrew Smith and a stingy defense that kept Freedom from equalizing late in the game, Palm Harbor University wrapped up its third state championship, and first under Delgado, with a 2-1 defeat of Freedom.
"I'm just so happy for these guys," Delgado said. "What a game. What a great game. What a great team we played. They were coming in hot. Everybody thought they (Freedom) were going to come in here and take it, especially coming from Tampa. We just proved everybody wrong."
PHU (24-4-4) was relentless in its pressure from the opening whistle and was rewarded with the game's first goal in the 14th minute. Ben Sweat was fouled deep in Freedom territory and sent a free kick toward Patriots keeper Kyle Peel (two saves). Andrew Smith corralled the pass and sent a shot into Peel's gut. The ricochet bounced back to Millette, who shot past Peel for his second goal of the season.
With the Hurricanes continuing their offensive assault against the Freedom goal in the first half, PHU was awarded a penalty kick in the 25th minute after Sweat was upended in the box by Freedom's Patrick Crowe on a bicycle kick attempt. Smith lined up the shot for the Hurricanes and buried it just inside the right post for a 2-0 advantage.
A PHU foul outside the Hurricanes box gave Freedom junior Ellis Curry a free kick in dangerous territory. Curry's kick went toward the goal line, but Manny Martes saved the ball before it crossed and centered to senior Doug Yablun, who shot past a sprawling Max Gallin (three saves) with 24 minutes left.
"It was actually a surprise," Yablum said. "(Martes) passed the ball real quick, and I didn't expect it. I was just at the right spot at the right time."
Freedom (17-3-5) continued pressuring the 'Canes goal looking for the equalizer, but PHU's defense proved to be too stout and the Patriots ran out of time.
"This whole group is great. It's been a great experience all the way through," said Freedom coach Dennis Derflinger of his team's first state final.
"Just being around these guys is outstanding. And hopefully this experience is something we can build on."