PALM HARBOR — The Hurricane Watch final had all the makings of a classic with Palm Harbor U. and Countryside meeting for the third time this season.
But having already lost twice this season to the Cougars and with little at stake, Hurricanes coach Alex Delgado rested his starters while investing the time in seeing who could provide firepower from the bench.
As it turned out, Delgado might have found more than he imagined. Facing a squad ranked No. 43 in the ESPN Rise FAB 50 national poll, the youth-infused Hurricanes held the Cougars to just one goal in the 1-0 defeat.
"Countryside's easily one of the best teams in the state, if not the nation," Delgado said. "We wanted to let other guys get some action so we can figure out who could provide some help come district (playoffs). We also wanted to let the starters see the game from a different perspective.
"Hopefully, the next time we face them, the (starters) will have learned some things."
Countryside's goal came midway through the first half. Senior midfielder Jagger Martinez gathered a pass just past midfield, spun the ball around with his right foot, pushed it toward the penalty box and rifled a low liner with his left foot past Josh Preisig.
The Cougars (18-1-1) had several other chances but could not put any of their other 15 shots past Preisig, who finished with eight saves for PHU (15-3-3).
"We came out slow because of who was on the other side of the field," Martinez said. "We took them for granted, and they showed us some things. We got big-headed and were too busy glory-hunting."
Countryside coach David Sica knows his team is far from reaching the level of his 2006 state title team that finished 28-4.
"They continue to ask me after every game if they're better than that team, and I continue telling them no," Sica said. "They think they can show up and beat teams. But they have another thing coming if they continue having that mind-set.
"I don't want to take anything away from Palm Harbor because they played amazingly well. But they have to play with something to prove no matter who's on the other side. That team back then pulverized opponents when they had the opportunity. They need to learn they're stronger together than they are alone."