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Mirror images face off tonight

Land O'Lakes and River Ridge enter the Class 3A, District 10 final with a lot in common.

The oddsmakers who correctly set the Super Bowl line at seven points _ the St. Louis Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans 23-16 _ might not be able to call this one.

The third consecutive River Ridge-Land O'Lakes final is at 6 tonight at Gator Stadium, and the Class 3A, District 10 championship result is anyone's guess.

These Pasco County rivals are strikingly similar. River Ridge (20-5-4) won the Sunshine Athletic Conference Crown this season, one point better (24-23) than Land O'Lakes.

The Gators (21-3-1) earned the top seed in the 3A-10 tourney with a 9-0-1 district mark over the second-seeded Royal Knights (6-2-2 in 3A-10).

Land O'Lakes narrowly defeated River Ridge 3-2 in last season's district final and advanced to the 5A state championship game. River Ridge posted a 4-0 win over Land O'Lakes in the 1998 district final, the second season in which the Knights reached the final four.

But wait, there's more. Each team won by a goal after spotting their respective opponents a 1-0 lead in Wednesday's semifinals. River Ridge defeated Gulf 2-1 on Dylan Tennant's goal in the final minute while Land O'Lakes got a goal from Justin Geisler in the first five-minute overtime session to beat Ridgewood 2-1.

As if there needs to be another common denominator between River Ridge and Land O'Lakes, both coaches believe their current squads are the best they have had.

"I really do think my starting 11 are the best I've ever had," River Ridge's Dave LaRoche said.

"This year, I think I have quality at every position."

Mark Pearson feels his team has even more firepower than last season's Land O'Lakes club that scored 77 goals in 25 games and lost the 5A final 3-2 to Fort Myers.

The coaches and players from both teams feel tonight's battle will be as intense as the two regular-season contests, a 1-1 tie at River Ridge and a 2-1 Land O'Lakes home win.

"I want to beat Land O'Lakes. I feel we can beat them," said River Ridge midfielder R.J. Dofka, who got the Knights back in Wednesday's game with a tying goal against Gulf.

To do so, River Ridge will need a spark on offense. Will it be Dylan Tennant, who netted the game-winner Wednesday for his team-leading 21st goal? Or maybe Jason Bingham, the goalkeeper/forward who often comes out of the nets to ignite the Knights?

"Jason Bingham has been trying to get me to play him on the field every minute of every game," LaRoche said.

But with the late-season departure of Paul Clapson, who shared time in the Knights net and played forward until leaving late last month for a tryout with an English team, Bingham has played mostly at keeper.

Premier setup man Mike Bosco, who LaRoche is campaigning for as the North Suncoast's best player, and midfielders Mike Nelson, Josh Paris and Kevin O'Dell are steady players in the Knights' ball-control attack.

With Land O'Lakes' penchant to control play in the opponent's zone, something has to give, and Pearson may have an advantage with one of the best finishers around in Justin Geisler. The Land O'Lakes coach has been pitching Geisler, who has 46 goals, as the best player along the North Suncoast.

"The difference (in Wednesday's semifinal) is you have a world-class player in Justin Geisler," Pearson said.

Neither coach is worried about the other team trying to slow the other down by clogging the middle like Gulf and Ridgewood tried Wednesday. So fans can expect more scoring chances for the Knights and Gators, and that puts quite a burden on the defenders _ River Ridge's Justin Nealon and Steven Dematos and Land O'Lakes' Brad Savage, J.P. Rodrigues and Jon Almodovar.

Scoring and defense aside, the real hero or goat in tonight's game will be a goalkeeper. One of them will be charged with giving up the game-winner.

Will it be Greg Kline, who last month became the Gators' starting keeper after splitting time with Jason Gibfried (who has since quit the team) for most of the season? Or will it be Bingham or junior varsity call-up David Farner.

That's a tough one to call, even for the oddsmakers.

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