CLEARWATER — It has been quite the senior year for Palm Harbor University defender Sam Venker.
In February, Venker — anchoring a back line that surrendered just one playoff goal — led the Hurricanes to the school's third state championship in boys soccer. Friday, Venker capped his high school career by scoring the winner in the 16th annual Senior Soccer Challenge at Countryside High to send the Pinellas All-Stars past the Hillsborough 3-2.
"It's been special," said Venker, chosen as Pinellas' MVP by the Hillsborough coaching staff. "I came in with my brother (Max). He led that state title team (in 2006). I tried to step out of the shadow a little bit. I got my own, and it's been special."
Venker's goal came with eight minutes remaining after Hillsborough rallied from a two-goal deficit to tie. Pinellas put sustained, heavy pressure on Hillsborough keeper Kyle Hollingsworth (Newsome), and Venker capitalized by gathering a ricochet at the edge of the box and cracking a bending ball inside the far post that had Hollingsworth glued to his spot.
Pinellas took a 1-0 lead into halftime after Ryan Rivera (St. Petersburg) got his head on Joey Gratt's (Countryside) header and flicked the ball into goal. Early in the second half, Joe Wunderlich (Clearwater Central Catholic) poked a rebound away from Hollingsworth and sent a shot into the open net to make it 2-0.
Hillsborough kept clawing and finally got on the board with 22 minutes remaining on Matt Noble's (Wharton) penalty kick after Alex Tuch (Tampa Prep) was fouled in the box. A minute later, Gerald Sheaffer (Wharton) tied the score by lifting a shot over Pinellas goalkeeper Max Gallin (PHU) that Gallin got a fingertip on but couldn't stop before crossing the goal line.
Gallin made a tremendous save one-on-one with less than a minute to go to preserve the win for Pinellas, which trails 7-9 in the series. Tuch was named Hillsborough's MVP, and Noble won Hillsborough's Coaches Award, voted on by his own coaches. Wunderlich was given the Pinellas Coaches Award.
Girls: Pinellas prevails
On the girls side, the Pinellas All-Stars made it a clean sweep with a 4-2 victory. Pinellas scored twice in the opening 10 minutes to establish control early. Pinellas Park's Claudia Saucedo booted a left-footed shot toward the far post and tucked it into the corner for a 1-0 Pinellas lead with 33:30 left in the first half. Two minutes later, East Lake's Alicia Nalley made it 2-0 after sliding a shot past keeper Cristina Coca (Bloomingdale). Nalley's goal was set up by East Lake teammate Leah Fisher, who passed to Nalley inside the box on a short corner kick.
"You're going against people that are typically enemies, people that we hate going against, opponents from other schools," Nalley said. "It's weird that we become friends playing together and stuff. It's a really unique experience. I'm glad I got to do it."
Nalley made it 3-0 Pinellas with 22 minutes left. Danielle Sibly (Dixie Hollins) received a pass from Mel Kepto (St. Petersburg) on a breakaway and finished easily for a 4-0 Pinellas lead.
Tampa Prep's Paige Goodwin scored Hillsborough's first goal with 10 minutes remaining, and cut the Pinellas lead in half moments later after sending a powerful header into goal.
Fisher was named MVP for Pinellas and Alivia McDaniel (Clearwater) got the Coaches Award. Hillsborough's MVP was Goodwin. Morgan Sammons (Newsome) was selected for the Hillsborough Coaches Award.