Although it seemed in doubt for a while, the Class 2A, District 5 boys soccer championship will be an all-Citrus County affair after all.
That was all but assured in the 72nd minute when Citrus striker Alex Posta blasted a penalty kick low and to the left of Leesburg keeper Ryan Dahart, clinching a 3-2 victory and a berth in Friday's final against Crystal River.
The Pirates (13-2) defeated Lecanto (7-11-2) 4-0 in the second semifinal to clinch their fourth consecutive berth in a district final.
"I had no doubt I would make it," said Posta, who accounted for all of Citrus' goals in recording his fourth hat trick of the season. "(The left side is) my favorite side."
Indeed it was. Posta converted on a similar effort in the 52nd minute to erase a one-goal deficit that had stood for nearly 44 minutes.
However, even that wouldn't last long, as Leesburg reclaimed the lead less than two minutes later after a well-placed cross from Don Buckner found the foot of Adam McRae 10 yards deep in the box. McRae found just enough space to get off a shot, which he placed to the right of Citrus keeper Chris Garcia for a 2-1 advantage.
The drama hardly ended there. In fact, the game was filled with it, from the heroic effort of Dahart, who fended off a 13-shot barrage from Citrus in the first half, to Posta, who always seemed to pull out a key goal when the Hurricanes (15-3-2) needed it most.
Citrus trailed for the next 13 minutes before Posta evened the score, thanks to a corner kick from Justin Loriquer that found the sophomore striker in the middle of the Yellow Jackets box. Posta delivered a one-touch strike to the left of Dahart that put momentum squarely in Citrus' favor.
"It was a good, physical game, but it was a clean game," Citrus coach Tom Darby said. "Both teams played hard, and neither gave in."
Crystal River, meanwhile, made sure there would be no such dramatics. Andres Sandoval scored the first of two goals in the 16th minute, and Chris Webb (goal, two assists) made it 2-0 just minutes later on an unassisted effort from 35 yards out.
Comfortable with its ball-control attack, the Pirates managed just two more goals but were dominant nonetheless, outshooting the Panthers 24-3. Donnie Caldwell made it 3-0 in the 64th minute off an assist from Webb, and Sandoval completed the scoring with a header off a Webb cross in the 81st minute.
"This is something we talked about before the game," Crystal River coach Dave Soluri said. "I think this was our best passing game of the year."
3A-10: Favorites survive
LAND O'LAKES _ Top seeds River Ridge and Land O'Lakes will battle for the Class 3A, District 10 championship, but their roads to Friday's final were anything but easy.
Gulf and Ridgewood gave the favored teams all they could handle in two semifinal thrillers at Gator Stadium. River Ridge eked out a 2-1 win over Gulf on Dylan Tennant's goal in the final minute of regulation while Land O'Lakes needed overtime to beat Ridgewood 2-1.
"We needed a game that was going to push us, and those guys pushed us," Land O'Lakes Mark Pearson said. "Just like Gulf and River Ridge."
Gulf (11-12-2) played a trapping defense and stymied River Ridge's ball-control offense in the first game, taking a 1-0 lead in the first half on Alex Maric's 11th goal and trying to hang on until the end.
But the Knights (20-5-4) got a spark when Jason Bingham came out of the nets and moved up to forward midway through the second half. R.J. Dofka took a pass from Tennant and broke in alone for his fifth goal in the 62nd minute.
With two five-minute overtimes looming, Tennant headed a cross from Bobby Blasewitz over Gulf keeper Danny Andrews in the final minute. Andrews made a stop on a similar play, getting his hands on a point-blank shot by Bingham, 12 minutes earlier.
Before his team rallied, River Ridge coach Dave LaRoche said, "I'm thinking it's over because (the Bucs) play an awesome defense."
Justin Geisler netted Land O'Lakes' game-winner, converting a through ball from Paul Woodbury for his 46th goal two minutes into the first overtime.
Ridgewood (12-8-1) took a 1-0 lead when Gavin Aquhart drilled a penalty kick past Greg Kline for his sixth goal in the 13th minute.
The Rams scored three of their last four goals of the season against Land O'Lakes on penalty kicks, two of which came in a 6-3 loss to the Gators on Jan. 21.
Land O'Lakes (21-3-1) knotted the game at 1 in the 19th minute with Jason Lipinski beating Steven Gray to the far right corner from a tough angle in close.
_ STEVE LEE
2A-6: Cobras, Eagles win
HUDSON _ Though his Hudson team had just beat Central 3-1 on Wednesday to advance to the final, Cobras coach Ron Ladimir wore the frown of a losing coach as he walked off a sloppy field.
"We played well enough to win and that's the only thing I was proud of," he said. "The main thing is getting to the finals and then whatever happens from there happens."
Junior midfielder Billy Boyko scored the go-ahead goal for Hudson with 14:44 remaining in the first half to make the score 2-1 and the Cobras added one more by senior forward Matt Cox in the second half to beat the Bears (5-12-1) for the third time this season.
Hudson (18-6) plays Springstead in the final at 8 p.m. Friday. The Eagles beat Zephyrhills 6-2.
The teams split during the regular season _ the Cobras won 2-0 at home and lost 2-1 at Springstead.
"It's going to be an excellent game," Ladimir said. "I think both teams are excited. We have to try and defend the title and that's the main thing."
Springstead (11-4-2) jumped out to a 3-0 lead by halftime. But Bulldogs junior forward John Briscoe scored two goals early in the second half to pull Zephyrhills (10-15-1) to within 3-2 in the 53rd minute.
Twenty minutes and three Zephyrhills yellow cards later, Springstead junior midfielder Stephen Bates his second goal to make it 4-2. He added his third goal of the game to make it 5-2 with less than six minutes remaining.
"We needed something to spark it up after they (Zephyrhills) got it going, once they got the momentum going after the second goal," Springstead coach John Bifulco said. "I think a couple of hard fouls right there in a row on a couple of my kids, that I think sparked my team."
The Eagles added their final goal one minute later when junior midfielder Richard Bennett beat Zephyrhills goalie Brad Howard. It was Bennett's second goal of the game.
_ KEVIN KELLY