PALM HARBOR — To understand how the Palm Harbor University boys soccer team stands on the precipice of the school's third state title, to comprehend the motivational force behind the Hurricanes' run to the Class 5A final four, a quick history lesson is in order.
A year ago, PHU rolled through a regular-season schedule consisting mostly of in-county competition with only one loss, a defeat to Seminole in the PCAC championship.
In the district final, PHU held a 3-1 advantage at halftime over rival East Lake, a team the Hurricanes had tied and beaten 3-0 during the regular season.
Everything set up for a lengthy postseason run. Then, disaster.
East Lake tied the score with two second-half goals, and the Eagles later won the title in a penalty shootout.
Six days later, the Hurricanes' state title hopes came to a premature end in a 3-0 loss on the carpet at Jesuit.
"We weren't put in (a pressure) situation all year long, and you could tell it hurt these guys a little bit," said coach Alex Delgado, in his second season with the Hurricanes. "Part of that was my fault, not getting them ready and being a little inexperienced."
Delgado made sure PHU was never again untested come playoff time. He entered the Hurricanes in highly competitive regular-season tournaments: the Puma Challenge, the High School Soccer Invitational and PHU's own Hurricane Watch — PHU was runnerup in the Invitational and Hurricane Watch.
He scheduled more away contests. At the winter break, the Hurricanes had just one home match.
"We've played 30 games now, and I think we have by far one of the toughest schedules in the state," Delgado said.
A slate heavy on county powers East Lake (four games), Seminole (three), Countryside (two) and Lakewood (two) combined with out-of-area games against Fletcher, 6A semifinalist Melbourne and 3A semifinalist Berkeley Prep.
"I think our schedule this year has definitely been a big reason why these boys are starting to perform in these big time games," Delgado said. "They understand that no matter who we play, as long as we play our game and play hard and play with a lot of passion and pride, it doesn't matter what team we're playing, what color uniform they're wearing or where they're from."
The Hurricanes (22-4-4), who lost nine seniors from a year ago, materialized as a contender with a 2-1 district final victory over previously undefeated East Lake.
"That game gave us a lot of motivation," goalkeeper Max Gallin said. "Finally we realized that we could do this."
Region wins over Leto, Jesuit and Seminole followed. Now the Hurricanes are two wins from winning a state title on the field where they won their first in 2002. Delgado, who played college soccer at UT from 2003-06, was a junior sweeper on that team. The Hurricanes' senior class is the first in school history to advance to three final fours.
"Our defense has been playing fantastic. Our midfield has been holding down the middle of the field. Our forwards have been finishing," said Gallin, one of six seniors. "Throughout the season, it's been one or the other. But since we've gotten all three working together, we've been tough to stop."
At a glance
The opponent: Monarch Knights (18-5-2)
Location: Coconut Creek, northern Broward County
Playoff history: Monarch is making its first appearance in the final four. The Knights won district championships in 2004, '05, '06 and '07 and advanced to the region final in '05.
How the Knights got here: Monarch lost to West Boca Raton in the regular season (4-1) and district final (3-1) but snapped back to beat Boca 2-1 in the region semis. Second-half goals from Raphael Ferreira and Diego Tique, his first of the season, led the Knights past Cape Coral 2-0 in the region final.
Top scorers: Felipe Nascimento (18 goals), Sr., F; Joao Mendes (15), Sr., M; Ferreira (11), Jr., M.
Between the posts: Michael Andrade (1.66 GAA) and Diego Cardoso (1.30) shared goalkeeping duties during the regular season, but in the most important games it's Cardoso, the senior, in goal. He has 92 saves this season.