TARPON SPRINGS — For Clearwater, redemption came at the most opportune moment.
The Cinderella sixth-seeded Tornadoes took their third road trip of the Class 4A, District 10 district tourney and emerged as champions, defeating host and top seed East Lake 4-3 on penalty kicks.
"Honestly, we knew our regular season was awful," said senior forward Devin Ortega. "We played bad in big games and made some costly mistakes. But we also knew we were going in (to districts) as the most dangerous sixth seed in years."
Third seed Countryside and No. 2 Seminole became believers, but the top-seeded Eagles (17-5-2) wouldn’t be as easy to convince.
Senior Keegan Carr took a loose ball two minutes into action, drove 60 yards across the pitch, got an inadvertent pick from brother Kyle Carr at the top of the box and powered the ball past Tornado keeper Matthew McGregory.
This started a 35-minute run of sustained play in Clearwater’s end, but McGregory (eight saves) was up to the task, stoning Andrew Weeden with a diving save near the right post and soaring to snag Jake Fuhr’s long-distance free kick.
Clearwater started to flip the field late in the first half, getting quality opportunities from senior Max Cole and junior Michael Carbone before Ortega broke through in the 52nd minute.
Getting a perfect pass from junior Christian Baxcajay to send him behind the Eagle defense, Ortega used history for his next move with the ball.
"(East Lake keeper) Kyle (Karamihalis) plays on my club team, so I knew he would come out (toward me)," Ortega explained. "Plus, earlier this year, I had a similar situation where I kind of messed up. I had to get the ball around his huge frame."
Ortega flipped the ball over the sliding keeper, settled and lined it past the retreating Eagles defense for the equalizer.
East Lake gave its best through regulation, being denied by Clearwater’s backline, McGregory and the goal itself, seeing two more shot ring off the crossbar.
"We couldn’t play them nonchalant," said defender Tristan Velez, who headed away two big Eagle crosses late in the second half. "We knew they’re fast, but we definitely had the speed in back to keep up."
In PKs, after opening saves from McGregory and Karamihalis (five saves), the frame once again became East Lake’s enemy as senior Dallas Young clanked his shot off the left post.
That gave final Tornado shooter Spencer Tassone his shot at victory.
"I told the boys, if you get the game down to me, I’ll bury that ball," said the junior midfielder, who shot right as Karamihalis dove to the left corner. "I did it for the seniors to keep their last run going."
And with its first district title since 2012 locked down, Clearwater will get a break from the road to kick off regional play.
"Our fans are great," Ortega concluded. "They traveled a half hour to support us (Friday). It means everything to us to be able to give them a home game."