TAMPA — In the span of 80 seconds Friday, Palm Harbor University's Ben Sweat and Josh Paul made two of the most jaw-dropping plays seen at any level.
Their fancy footwork had the collective heads of the Miami Killian players spinning in the Hurricanes 2-1 Class 6A state semifinal win, setting up PHU's repeat bid today against Boca Raton (7 p.m. start) for the state title.
Sweat received the ball on the counterattack at midfield with the score tied at 1. The senior midfielder weaved his way through a series of defenders, criss-crossing back and forth across the University of Tampa's Pepin Stadium field to keep his pursuers off balance. After making it to the 18, Sweat made one final move, cutting back to his left to get the ball on his favored foot, then unleashed a strike into the back of the net to culminate an incredible display of skill in the game's 68th minute.
"They're game-changers, plays like that," PHU coach Alex Delgado said.
Sweat's counter was set up by a miraculous save from Paul, one of many great stops the senior keeper made in the second half. Killian (19-5-1) advanced the ball deep into PHU territory on the right wing. A centering pass to a wide-open Diego Figueroa 6 yards from goal was on target, but Figueroa's one-touch toward the far post was kicked out of midair by Paul in a last-ditch dive to keep the score tied.
"Best save I've ever seen," Sweat said.
In a flash, the Hurricanes (21-5-3) went from watching their season end anticlimactically to continuing their march for the school's fourth state title.
"They're very battle-tested … this team," Delgado said. "They've been through everything this year."
A lackluster first half for the Hurricanes saw them fall behind 1-0 in the game's 34th minute when Killian's Jeffrey Stezovsky headed a shot that snuck just under the crossbar.
"They should have scored like two or three goals," Paul said. "We're lucky we got out of (the first half) only 1-0 down."
The Hurricanes, though, responded after halftime, playing with an energy level unseen in the first half. Delgado made a couple adjustments, shuffling his formation to include three forwards and three center mids, and the Hurricanes were rewarded when Patrick McDonald redirected Sweat's free kick inside the far post in the 45th minute to tie the game.
"We became a little bit more direct, we started applying some more pressure." Delgado said. "… Patrick came in with a huge goal that changed the whole game."
Then, Sweat and Paul saved the day for the Hurricanes.
"It's funny how the game of soccer is. It's the beautiful game for a reason," Delgado said. "It's just funny how everything can change in a matter of seconds, and it did for us."