PLANT CITY — Turns out there's a downside to having the best season in school history.
Never had Plant City High School had a soccer team get to a region final, yet there the Lady Raiders were Tuesday playing for a spot in the state semis. Plant City showed itself and a large home crowd it belonged but Lakewood Ranch prevailed 1-0.
And thus the downside. The further a team advances, the closer it gets to a possible state championship, the rougher it hits when it doesn't happen.
"The bigger the game, the bigger the opportunity … so it's even harder when you lose," said Plant City junior Diane Corzine. She was among the most exhausted Raiders, who for the entire final 40 minutes battled for a tying goal that never came.
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Lakewood Ranch came in with just one defeat. The Mustangs knocked out last year's state champ Ida Baker 4-1 in the opening round and won most of its games via shutout. Whenever it looked like the Raiders were putting together a promising string of passes, there was a Mustang to get in the way.
And on the handful of occasions Plant City moved into the Lakewood Ranch penalty area, the finishing touch was just a fraction off.
"We believed we could win, and to have it end it's just so … sad," said Kellee Brown, stalwart of the Raider 'D' and one of three seniors the squad will lose. "When the whistle blew to end the game — I hadn't even thought about my career being over. So that's when it hit me."
While the referee's signal was a blast of harsh finality, many of the Raiders were able to muster a smile when thinking on the team's two preceding games.
In the first playoff round, Plant City defeated Tarpon Springs 3-2. Brown, co-captain Christina Gutierrez and Lorena Gutierrez scored.
Then came time to attempt a program first, getting past the regional semifinals. They had to do it on the road. And against the same team, Seminole, that knocked out Plant City last year and made it all the way to the state finals. Christina Gutierrez's penalty kick in the second half, strong defense and alert goaltending by sophomore Taylor Michael added up to a 1-0 win.
"The past couple of weeks have been amazing," said Michael, a bright talent whose nine saves kept the Warhawks off the board.
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Adding to the Raiders' challenge against Seminole, they played without their leading scorer Saturday. Ericka Lott — with 24 goals and the only Raider to finish in double digits — opted to engage in a night of "chaos" as part of the Strawberry Festival Queen pageant while simultaneously trying to keep tabs on the soccer game.
With her father, Plant City council member Rick Lott, at the pageant and on the phone with several Raider parents, all of the good news got relayed. Just about the time Lott was being named a finalist is when Plant City scored. And when the game went final, she was placed in the top five.
Lott ended as first runnerup, but that wasn't what made for one very relieved Lott.
"I was at the pageant and just yelled 'Yay, we won!' If we wouldn't have won, I would have felt so bad that I didn't contribute for my team," Lott said after Tuesday's defeat.
Queen Kelsey Fry, on hand for Tuesday's game along with several hundred clad in orange, gave a little insight as to Lott's state: "She was freaking out, I had to tell her to calm down."
And the from-a-distance rooting went the other direction. On their postgame stop for food, Raiders players huddled around a cellphone as Lott was being announced as runnerup.
But unfortunately the winning feeling wasn't there Tuesday.
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Plant City just didn't have its normal life in the first half, and the head coach had a theory.
"It was just nerves," coach Caleb Roberts said. "Having never been this far, big crowd. It may have affected us."
The Raiders did have chances, however, especially in the second half. Plant City won balls at midfield, and freshman Deanna Rodriguez got the crowd buzzing with several long passes that led to scoring opportunities.
One long free kick by Rodriguez got inside the 10-yard area and right onto the head of Lott, but she put it over the goal. With six minutes remaining, the Raiders pulled Lakewood Ranch's goalie off her line on a corner kick, only to have senior Nidia Castro's shot go a few yards wide.
"I don't think we played our game, but it was great to get this far" said Michael. "And win or lose, we did it as a team."
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Looking to next season, Plant City only has to pick up a few pieces. Brown heads to Florida Southern College on a soccer scholarship, and the Nidias — Gutierrez and Castro — will depart, but that's it.
The group that came in as freshman — Lott, Kelsey Brevik, Stephanie Galloway, Corzine and Christina Gutierrez included — will be seniors.
So if as ninth-graders they led Plant City to its first playoff appearance in 11 years, as sophomores they won a playoff game for the first time, and as juniors took one more step … next year could be special.
But that doesn't make this year's ending easy to take.
"It's still rough," Rodriguez said. "Even as a freshman knowing I have three more years, it's tough to lose Kellee and her leadership. I made some really good friendships."
And much sadder commentary from someone who has no more time left in a Raider uniform, Nidia Gutierrez.
"We talked all year about winning the state championship. It was our goal. So right now, it's just heartbreaking."
Darek Sharp can be reached at [email protected].com.