Palm Harbor University coach Alex Delgado came full circle last season, guiding the Hurricanes to their third state title on the same Pepin Stadium field where he helped the school win its first championship as a player. Now in his third season piloting the Hurricanes boys soccer team, Delgado will strive to bring the program another first. Repeat state titles.
The Hurricanes have three titles in the past eight seasons but never back to back.
Despite graduating six key senior starters, including leading scorer Matthew Tobin, PHU remains one of a handful of local schools with legitimate title aspirations.
"I know firsthand how hard it is to repeat," Delgado said. "I had my doubts going into this year after losing six big-time seniors, but I like our style of play and how many players we've been able to rotate. … All I can say is I'm very confident in what we'll be able to do at the end of the year."
Last year, Delgado estimated he rotated 16 guys during the Hurricanes' title run, but that number will soar into the 20s this season with a larger contingent of talented players to choose from.
"We're pretty deep," said midfielder Ben Sweat, who orally committed to USF during the offseason. "Our second and third string are just as good. There's no drop-off when they're in there."
As defending state champs, the Hurricanes will be tested by teams looking to prove themselves, which is fine with Delgado, who says the tougher the competition during the regular season, the more prepared his team will be to make a deep postseason run.
"It's a great challenge for the players and the program," he said.
Five to watch
M Hamza Elotmani, Sr., Lakewood: The star looks to lead the Spartans to their first playoff appearance since 2007 after a disappointing finish a year ago.
F Nikolai Hammer, Jr., Countryside: The Clearwater transfer will make an immediate impact on a loaded Cougars squad. He tied the Tornadoes' school record with 15 goals last season.
F Nicholas Patterson, Sr., East Lake: The Eagles have several players who can put the ball in the back of the net, but Patterson is the most explosive.
M Ben Sweat, Sr., Palm Harbor University: The Times' 2008-09 player of the year, Sweat will be asked to shoulder more of the scoring load. He ranked second on the team with 13 goals a year ago.
M Shane Wixted, Sr., Seminole: The Providence commit is a magician with the ball. He led the Warhawks in scoring last season and should fill that role again.
The Cougars have one of the county's deepest rosters with close to 20 players who could start. They'll need that depth as nine players will miss about two weeks as part of the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy.
The Eagles have been unlucky in the playoffs in recent seasons but are perennially one of the state's best. Behind a core of Nicholas Patterson, Brett Hummel, Matt Kimball and Brent Merrick, East Lake is hoping to make its second final four appearance.
The Spartans have firepower in the dynamic midfield duo of Hamza Elotmani and burgeoning star Max Thuriere and can shut down opponents with a stout back line that returns three starters.
Palm Harbor University
The Hurricanes have made the state finals three of the past four seasons but will have to contend with a host of new playoff opponents after moving up to Class 6A.
The Green Devils are young — half the roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores — but extremely talented. Warren Simmons and Hudson White provide scoring punch to the offense, and freshman Hunter Loyden might be the county's top newcomer.
The Warhawks boast Pinellas' best midfield with Shane Wixted combining with fellow seniors Sean Rafferty and Troy Cobb. Senior forward Brian Tyler has missed the past two seasons with ACL tears but could be a goal-scoring force.
The Chargers' four-year district title streak could be in jeopardy with the addition of St. Stephen's. The Falcons have knocked Shorecrest out of the regional tournament three of the past four seasons.
East Lake at Palm Harbor University, Nov. 13: The only scheduled meeting between the teams. "You know Palm Harbor, East Lake," Eagles coach Sergei Stopek said of their rivalry. "I don't care if it's a company picnic event, it's going to be a battle."
Seminole at East Lake, Nov. 18: For the first time, Seminole and East Lake, the frontrunners in 5A-11, hook up as district opponents. The return match is Jan. 5.
Lakewood at Osceola, Dec. 8: PCAC South County title and No. 1 seed in the 4A-10 tournament could be on the line in the only matchup this season between the Spartans and Warriors.
Palm Harbor University at Countryside, Jan. 5: Now in the same district, the Cougars have replaced East Lake as the largest roadblock locally toward a Hurricanes repeat.
Hurricane Watch tournament at Palm Harbor University, Jan. 11-15: Alonso, Countryside, Lakewood, Mitchell and PHU make up the field for what is annually one of the most competitive tournaments in the area.