Neither coach is willing to admit it, but the two biggest players in tonight's Class 3A, District 10 soccer semifinal are River Ridge's Lindsey Jones and Land O'Lakes' Stacy Bishop.
The coaches _ Keith Hooper of River Ridge and the Gators' Vicky King _ say one player is never the most important because, well, that's the kind of things coaches say. We say Jones has 40 goals, Bishop has 45, and this is Jordan versus Bird, Chamberlain versus Russell, Ali versus Frazier.
The coaches say both players may not even score. Heck, in two games against River Ridge this season, Bishop, the freshman sensation, was shut out for one of the few times all season. But Jones scored. We say one of them nets the game-winner.
The coaches say the players we say will play the biggest roles will probably not even come close to each other on the field. Both are forwards and will basically be on opposite ends of the field. We say ummmm. Okay, sure, we actually agree, but there's no ignoring that these two players are far-and-away the best in the county.
"But we're still not looking at it as Stacy versus Lindsey," King said.
Okay, coach, granted. Tonight's game is not Stacy versus Lindsey. It's River Ridge versus Land O'Lakes, and what's so amazing about this soccer game is this: That's enough.
The two best teams squaring off. The Sunshine Athletic Conference champion against the runner-up. Archrival against archrival. The top two teams in their district the past five years. A showdown in a game that ends one's season and preserves the other's.
And get this. It's only a district semifinal.
With the winner and loser of the final moving on to regionals, it's imperative for teams to reach the title game. And considering that hugely overwhelming favorite Palm Harbor will be there waiting, tonight's game is it.
The Pasco County Championship and Regional Playoff Qualifier.
"In a way, it does (decide county superiority for 1999-2000)," said Hooper, whose team is 6-0-1 in its past seven against the Gators, including 1997's district championship shootout win.
"I made the comment to the girls in the locker room (Monday) that in the course of the regular season, we came in first in the SAC, but this really would legitimize the SAC championship."
Point is, this is the kind of game that wipes out everything before it. This is the grand prize. If the Gators win, think they'd trade it for that SAC patch?
"The only thing we're looking at is (tonight)," King said. "(Tonight) is the whole season."
Which brings us back to Stacy and Lindsey. In Bishop, the Gators have inherited a gold mine. King salivates at the prospects of coaching her for three more seasons while others bemoan her youth. She is the total package, mixing great size, great speed and a great shot. "Silky," King says.
And Jones, a junior, is likewise. We will save the debate on who is better for a later date, but Jones has shattered the school record for goals by 14 and almost single-handedly turned River Ridge from a defensive team to one that focuses more on attacking.
Even with all this, the coaches remained stalwart in their defense of the team, naturally. King says her team does not look for Bishop at every turn to score and points to the stats of her other scorers, like Casie Poyssick, who has 19 goals, or Tara Eugenides, who has 10 goals but recently was moved back to sweeper, or even keeper Mandy Stephens and her 10 shutouts.
And Hooper says Jones would not be nearly as effective as she is without Debbie Joseph creating room to score and Sarah Goldberg keeping defenses honest and his backline's ability to push the ball up to the hotshot forward.
Look at DeeDee Castro. She scored 45 goals three years ago, though no one remembers that Roxanne Anderson scored 41. Without another player like Anderson, Castro has seen her scoring diminish each season as she is forced to help out in other areas of a weakened team.
There's your proof, they say. Team. Team. Team.
Maybe by looking too hard for the bright lights of Jones and Bishop, we will miss the game's deciding blow because chances are it will be delivered by someone else. Hooper is almost sure of it.
That's why these are Pasco's two best teams _ they have a few someone elses.
That's what the coaches say.
We say fine by us. Jones versus Bishop. Land O'Lakes versus River Ridge. No. 1 versus No. 2. Any way you want us to word it, the bottom line is, and we'll use King's words.
"This will be a really good game. It always is."