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Third time's the charm _ but for whom?

At the start of this season, no one would be surprised at the notion that Ridgewood and Gulf would meet in the Class 3A, District 9 final. Alas, it is so tonight.

But the circumstances might not have so easily foreseen. Ridgewood went undefeated in both the Sunshine Athletic Conference and in 3A-9. Two of Ridgewood's three losses were to returning state champions.

Gulf, also, went perfect in the conference and district, save a pair of 1-0 losses to Ridgewood. Two goals cost the Buccaneers an immaculate record in the area.

So Gulf wants this one bad, right? Well Ridgewood had a strong season last year, but it didn't get a crack at Gulf in the district final because the participation of an ineligible player cost the Rams a semifinal win, ending their season. Gulf went on to win the district crown, the region crown, the section crown.

So Ridgewood wants this one bad, right?

They both want it bad. And they'll go after it today at 7 p.m.

"It's going to be very close," Ridgewood coach Robert Shirmohammad said after his team's 7-0 defeat of Hudson in the semifinals Wednesday. "I don't think you'll see more than one goal scored. I'd be very surprised if you see more than one goal. I don't know whose it will be, though."

No doubt Shirmohammad wouldn't mind if it was junior forward Tony DelleDonne, who scored the sole goal in both games.

Gulf coach Ron Barnett would rather see his side go up early.

"We need to score right away," Barnett said. "We need to get our opportunities immediately and finish."

An cursory analysis of tonight's matchup:

Gulf is simply solid talent-wise across the field. The team has a balance of senior and junior experience, but also includes sophomore B.J. Ciper among its stronger talents.

Seniors Todd Shaw and Jeff Starkey each posted hat tricks over Springstead in the semifinal, but virtually every Buccaneer on the field has posted several goals this season. Shaw also had two assists in the semifinal; Starkey had one.

The magic man for Gulf is Barnett, one of the most experienced and renowned coaches in the state. He is known for a commitment to constant practice and physical conditioning.

The team also brings with it the experience of district, regional and sectional championships from last year.

Ridgewood also has skill from front to back, but the most impressive aspect has been the defense, particularly sweeper Tony Lendino and Matt Pratt.

Another strength is Castano. His skill against the one-on-one has gone pretty much untested due to the strong fullback play, but Castano cuts the angle well against outside shots, dives corner-to-corner, and boasts one of the best punts _ if not the best _ on the Suncoast.

Ridgewood's offense is tough, though it might lack the explosive power of Gulf. Forwards DelleDonne and Tom Mack share the load equally with midfielders Vinny Vurro, Dave Lundekvam, Hobby Barndollar and John Tezber. Barndollar is equally a strong sweeper, which he proved filling in for Lendino when the latter got a red card in the last Gulf game.

Not much on these teams can be classified as weaknesses. Gulf goalkeeper Sims Henry is the backup for Mike Vaughn, who is out with an injury. But Henry has been decent in goal so far.

For Ridgewood, Shirmohammad is in only his second season of coaching; his first was last year at Land O'Lakes. He lacks Barnett's experience, but the results speak for themselves _ this year it's Shirmohammad 2, Barnett 0.

At least until tonight.