Almost an entire season has elapsed since Bloomingdale and Chamberlain last met on the soccer field. And what a season it has been.
Neither team has lost or been tied during that time, and both exceeded preseason expectations by earning rankings in the Class 4A boys state poll. Both teams have produced several all-state candidates.
No. 4 Bloomingdale (18-1-1) has won a state-best 18 in a row since playing Chamberlain to a 2-2 tie on Dec. 3. Chamberlain (16-1-1), ranked eighth and enjoying its best season ever, has won 13 straight since a 2-1 loss to the Bulls in the final of the Kiwanis/Key Club Invitational tournament Dec. 11.
So which team is better now, at season's end?
The Western Conference American Division standings provide no clue. The Bulls and Chiefs had identical conference records and shared the title. (The Kiwanis tournament did not apply to the conference standings). But they can't split a regional championship.
Hillsborough County's top two teams will collide tonight at 7 in the Class 4A, Region III championship game at Chamberlain.
It's one of three regional playoff games hosted by county teams tonight. In the 3A-Region V title game, Jesuit (15-4-4) hosts New Port Richey-Ridgewood (18-3-0) at 6 p.m. Berkeley Prep (16-4-1) hosts Mulberry (18-5-2) in the 2A-Region IV championship at 7 p.m.
The Bloomingdale-Chamberlain game has been long anticipated by both teams.
"It's tough when they match the top two teams at the beginning of the season," said Chiefs coach Kelvin Jones. "We wanted to play them again. We didn't get the respect we thought we deserved. I suspect we're better than the beginning of the season. But they play well. I know they've improved too."
The Chiefs claimed their first-ever district title with a 3-1 overtime victory over Leto in the 4A-6 title game Friday.
"This game is probably more special to them than to us because we're their only blemishes," said Bloomingdale coach Dave Tennian. "Obviously, it's going to be a good game. Both teams have a lot of skill and are very physical. We don't think of it as settling any deal with them. It's just one more step toward our ultimate goal: returning to state."
The Bulls, state runners-up in 1990, regained the district crown they lost to Armwood last season with an 8-1 rout of Lakeland in Friday's 4A-5 championship game.
The Bulls must shut down Chamberlain's Juan Panesso, the county's leading scorer, while the Chiefs must contain Bloomingdale center forward Andy Laverghetta and center midfielder Mike Sherman.
Jesuit, a state semifinalist last season, is still alive this season with a strong second half in which it has lost just once in its last 15 games. The Tigers, ranked No. 4 in 3A, defeated Tarpon Springs 2-1 Friday for the District 10 title while No. 10 Ridgewood got by crosstown rival and co-No. 10 Gulf by the same score for the 3A-District 9 crown. The teams have not met this season.
"On Friday, we played their game and were able to survive and win it," said Jesuit coach Bon Bauman. "We don't know much about Ridgewood, but we want to play our own game. Our losses have come because we've been put to sleep or because we never got into our game."
Bauman said he feels the Tigers could return to the state tournament, which requires a win tonight and a victory in Friday's sectional playoff. "It would be a shame if they didn't make it back," he said. "I've been with them. I've seen the highs and lows and the highs are as good as several of the teams that have made it in the past."
Berkeley Prep, ranked No. 2 in 2A, had the most arduous route to the regional tournament, requiring four overtimes and a Max Edwards goal on a penalty kick six seconds before a shootout to claim the District 8 title, its first-ever, in a 2-1 win Friday over Tarpon Springs.
"It was probably the most consistent game we've played all season," said Buccaneers coach Dave Zimmerman. "We did the things we do well all game. We outshot them 35-7.
"Our first goal was to win a district title, so anything after that is icing on the cake, but one of our goals is to get to state. It would be very nice to win this region."
Unranked Mulberry upset No. 6 Lakeland Santa Fe Catholic 2-1 in the 2A-7 championship game Friday.