LAND O'LAKES — With another 20-win season on the line, Land O'Lakes coach Mark Pearson trusted his gut, the very one that had been wrenched by three consecutive first-round playoff failures.
About 20 minutes into the Gators' Class 5A region quarterfinal against defending state champ Wharton, Pearson moved junior defender Frankie Villar up front. "I just felt like he had more to give," Pearson said.
He ended up giving the Gators their most gratifying triumph in, oh, four years. Villar's 30-yard shot in the second overtime deflected off the hands of goalkeeper Alex Stickley and into the net, lifting the Gators to an exhilarating 2-1 triumph. For the first time since 2005, Land O'Lakes (22-2-2) advances to the second round of the playoffs.
"It's so good. It feels so good right now," Pearson said. "The last three years we've just had this thing, and sometimes you just need that little bit of luck, that little bit of something, and we had that tonight."
What they didn't have, for the last nine minutes of regulation and both overtimes, was top scorer and Florida Atlantic signee Dominic Cutrofello (36 goals), forced to exit after receiving his second yellow card.
To that point, the teams had played to a 1-all tie. Wharton struck first, 15 minutes into the match, when senior Jacob Cohen scored on a rebound collected when goalkeeper Alex Spock blocked Matt Noble's header in front of the net. Nine minutes later, Gators senior Felix Soto responded with a goal off Sebastian Garcia's corner kick.
The Gators (13 shots on goal) had several ensuing opportunities, including a point-blank shot at the net by Cutrofello in the 57th minute, but couldn't slip one past Stickley. In fact, Villar's winner came off the rebound of Stickley's leaping deflection of Tyler Horvath's shot on goal.
"A second before, (Stickler had) probably the best save of the match on both teams to keep us in the ball game," Wharton coach Scott Ware said. "It's unfortunate."