State semifinalists Palm Harbor University (Class 6A) and Seminole (5A) have driven similar paths to arrive at University of Tampa's Pepin Stadium for Friday's final four matchups.
Both teams have caught fire in the postseason behind big-play offenses and mistake-free defenses.
They share similar playoff pedigrees. Seminole is a two-time champion; PHU has three titles. Both are making their fifth state appearance.
We look at three key factors that have positioned the Hurricanes (20-5-3) and the Warhawks (17-8-2) on the brink of another state championship.
The tipping point
PHU: The Hurricanes sleep-walked through the first half of the season — a 1-1 tie at North Port was the low point — but came out of the winter break energized. Beating Countryside 3-2 in the first game back "set the tone," according to coach Alex Delgado, and the Hurricanes continued winning, going 10-1 after the layoff.
"The second half, after the Christmas break is always a time to shine for Palm Harbor," midfield captain P.J. McDonald said.
Seminole: Coach Rick Masi said the Warhawks "got a wake-up call" when they stumbled in a 2-0 loss to Indian Rocks Christian (Jan. 15), breaking a three-game unbeaten streak. Seminole has won five of six since, knocking off nationally ranked Sickles and East Lake in its past two. And in the lone loss — 3-2 to East Lake in the district final — the Warhawks had their chances to pull out the win.
"We really picked it up when we played East Lake in the district final," Christian McHale said. Eleven days later, Seminole put together its best performance of the season to stun the Eagles 4-0.
PHU: L.J. Kim, Ben Sweat, Derek Funk, Vitor Sales, Charlie Hales, Jeremy Paul and Ryan VanSchaick have missed time with injuries. In fact, the Hurricanes' final regular-season match against Northeast in the PCAC Challenge was the first time this season the team was completely healthy. With a full squad, the Hurricanes have depth that wasn't there early.
"It seems like those injuries brought other players off the bench and let them have some playing time," senior Brandon Shaneyfelt said. "So now we have more players ready to come off the bench and play."
Seminole: The Warhawks shared similar injury concerns during the regular season. Leading playmaker Shane Wixted missed 10 games with a back injury. McHale, a senior defender, was out for 11 with an Achilles tear. Brian Tyler, Charles Lynch and Sean Rafferty were forced out with various ailments.
"We've had a lot of issues this year that we had to work through," Masi said. "But now they're coming together."
PHU: Perhaps no Hurricane has had a better second half of the season than senior goalkeeper Josh Paul. His saves in a penalty kick shootout against Bloomingdale in the region quarters kept the Hurricanes' repeat hopes alive, and he has continued that level of play through the playoffs.
"Josh has been unbelievable," Delgado said. "In the Olympia (region final), he was the man of the match. … We had some breakdowns and he made some great saves. He's been big-time."
Last season, Max Gallin, now a freshman at Princeton, was instrumental down the stretch for the state champion Hurricanes. Paul hopes to follow Gallin's example.
A close runnerup? McDonald, who has three goals in the past two games and is second behind Sweat with 13 goals.
"Everybody knows Ben," Delgado said. "But P.J.'s been that unsung hero."
Seminole: Finally 100 percent healthy, Lynch has been unstoppable in the playoffs. The junior forward scored twice in the region opener at Northeast. He then stunned East Lake in the region semis with two goals in the first 20 minutes and had a potential hat trick slapped off the line by the hand of an Eagles defender, setting up goal No. 3.
"Once he got hot, the whole team's just kind of jumped on his back," Tyler said.
Lynch's greatest asset is his speed. He has emerged as arguably the quickest player in the county, and his ability to track down long passes has given Seminole another offensive threat to complement Wixted.