TAMPA — Forget the marshy Muley Stadium field, air-tight officiating or frigid February weather. For the Wharton Wildcats, those pitfalls were navigable Tuesday night.
Their tallest order, 6-foot-5 Countryside keeper Hunter Maricle, was not.
In a physical duel featuring eight yellow cards, Maricle collected a dozen saves — including a handful from point-blank range — to lift the Cougars (23-1-1) to a 3-0 triumph against the resurgent Wildcats (11-11-1) in the Class 6A region semifinals.
Countryside, which hasn't allowed a goal in the playoffs, travels to Winter Garden West Orange for Friday's region final. As the No. 9 team in the latest ESPN Rise Powerade Fab 50 national rankings, the Cougars again will be the hunted.
Which matters little as long as they have their Hunter.
"He came up big," said 'Cats coach Scott Ware, whose team entered Tuesday's match on a three-game win streak. "He came up with at least three good saves on us that kept them in the ball game. If we had gotten one (goal) early maybe different things would've happened, but they're a quality side, you could see it."
Sophomore Dalton Martinez would give Maricle all the cushion he'd need in the seventh minute, when he took a through ball and drilled a shot from the right corner of the box.
Senior Nikolai Hammer's header off a corner kick in the 36th minute made it 2-0. Amid those goals, Maricle — who's headed to Virginia Tech — stood on his head.
He blocked Ryan Brown's straight-on shot in the box in the 19th minute, deflected Felipe Desousa's shot from roughly 10 yards in front of the net, and blocked Konner Dozark's shot off a mini-breakaway.
"Hunter played outstanding," Cougars coach Dave Sica said. "I mean, he made probably three or four point-blank saves that could've changed the momentum of the game."