ST. PETERSBURG — Countryside girls soccer coach Rob Saltz called his team's district opener at St. Petersburg "the biggest game of the season."
And after building a 3-0 lead Tuesday and holding on through a valiant St. Petersburg rally late, the Cougars can celebrate their greatest win to date, a 3-1 victory over the Green Devils.
"I'm very happy with the win," Saltz said. "We talked about the importance of this game all week. This was big for us."
The reason? Countryside, St. Petersburg and Palm Harbor University are the front-runners in Class 6A, District 7, fighting for one of two first-round byes. With PHU undefeated, the loser of Tuesday's game would likely find itself on the outside looking in for one of those byes.
Understanding the game's significance, Countryside (6-1) pressured St. Petersburg goalkeeper Allie Clay from the opening whistle, creating scoring chances until a foul in the box allowed the Cougars' Thea Linkfield to convert a penalty shot in the ninth minute.
"We got a great start," Saltz said. "I thought we played our best in the first 15 minutes."
Countryside's Alyssa Rosati made it 2-0 just before halftime after beating an offside trap and sliding a shot past Clay (three saves).
Linkfield's 13th goal of the season gave the Cougars a 3-0 advantage with 37 minutes left in the game.
Adriana Rodrigues drove a free kick into goal to bring St. Petersburg (3-2-1) within two. The Green Devils peppered Countryside goalie Kim Cohn (seven saves) with quality shots over the final 15 minutes but could get no closer.
The Cougars' boys team made it a sweep of St. Petersburg after Mike Lion's goal with seven minutes remaining proved to be the only score in a 1-0 victory.
The Cougars (5-2-1) held the majority of the possession for much of the first half and parts of the second but couldn't find the back of the net until Lion received a pass down the right wing, pushed the ball into the middle of the field and unleashed a shot toward the far post that slipped just past the reach of goalie Tony Liebel (nine saves).
"When I got the ball, I saw the defender come across," Lion said. "I just decided to cut it back and have a look at net."
St. Petersburg (1-4-1) recorded only three shots against a stingy Cougars back line.
"I thought our defense did an excellent job tonight," Countryside coach David Sica said. "We did a great job eliminating scoring opportunities."