LAND O'LAKES — When Land O'Lakes' girls soccer team heads to the suburban nether regions of east Hillsborough County for Thursday's Class 5A region quarterfinals at Newsome, they'll need confidence, cohesion, and maybe some good karma.
But no GPS. By now, coach Vicky King knows the way. The directions include heading south on the interstate, braking often for traffic in Lithia's late-afternoon congestion, and watching out for the hump — at least the mental one.
In the past three seasons, the Gators have fallen in the opening round of the playoffs to either Newsome or nearby Bloomingdale. In each of those years, whichever one hasn't ended the Gators' season has vanquished River Ridge's playoff aspirations. For King and River Ridge counterpart Skip Glover, the Wolves and Bulls have been the kick of death.
"They're a thorn in everybody's side," Glover said.
Thursday night, for the fourth time in as many years, Land O'Lakes and River Ridge try to clear those east Hillsborough humps in a single bound. And their coaches insist they'll do it with eager anticipation, not apprehension.
"We're playing well so I think we're going in with a positive attitude," said King, seeking her first playoff triumph since 2004, which ended with a trip to the Class 5A state tournament. "On a given day any team can beat anybody. We're playing much better than we were at the beginning of year both offensively and defensively. Our team is very young and has come together."
After a 7-8 start, the Gators, who start only one senior and three juniors, have won six of their past eight, falling 1-0 to River Ridge in Friday's District 7 championship. While the Gators head to Newsome with momentum, the Royal Knights (17-2) greet Bloomingdale with one of Glover's most balanced lineups.
Unlike 2008, when the River Ridge offense centered around Florida International signee Deana Rossi, the Knights boast scoring diversity. Six players have at least six goals, led by junior Mikaela Morolla (16 goals) and sophomore Jenny Karl (15).
"We don't have anybody who's going to get a whole lot of attention from the media but we've got a lot of girls in double digits for goals and assists," Glover said. "It will be harder to shut us down just by marking one kid."
In this all-out effort to reverse history, both coaches will reference it. King will remind her kids that her 2004 team, a district runnerup, won three consecutive road playoff games to make the state tournament. Glover will remind his squad that it was standing toe-to-toe with Newsome last year before a Knights goal was taken off the board, allowing the Wolves to escape with a 1-0 triumph.
"I keep saying I just leave it up to my seniors, the ones who have been through this," Glover said. "They'll be nervous but hopefully they'll be ready."