Just when you thought it couldn't get any better, Land O'Lakes and Mitchell took its rivalry to a new level on a cold, wet Friday night.
For 80 captivating minutes the Mustangs and Gators battled back and forth, attacking and parrying, driving and defending, their rivalry intensifying as the clock spun down, all the way until the final dramatic minutes.
But for the first time this season it was Land O'Lakes that fell short. Mitchell held on to a 1-0 win in the Class 5A, District 5 final at River Ridge's James Valentine Stadium, winning the title and handing the defending state champion its second loss of the season.
It was the fifth straight contest between these two decided by one goal. After an early season tie, Mitchell lost the rematch 1-0.
"At least this time we got the first goal and from then on we played a little bit more cautious," Mustangs coach Karl Kukec said, "which gave them a little bit more of the game. But when you're leading in a game like this, you just want to make sure you can hold."
Goalkeeper Lauren Hudson and her defense did just that, withstanding a ferocious Land O'Lakes attack and preserving the one-goal lead Kate Slaughter gave her team in the eighth minute.
That was when Slaughter took the breakaway pass from Lauren Schenk and hurtled toward the Gators goal. She outran defender Jessica Gagnon and slipped the ball past diving keeper Shannon Aitken. Slaughter sent the ball to her right to the far post, and it slipped right under the keeper.
"They took the opportunity of the one mistake in the back and scored," Gators coach Vicky King said. "We had opportunities to score and we didn't. They had the one goal. We did not."
Land O'Lakes (22-2) did everything it could to tie it, but the Mitchell (21-1-2) defense withstood each attack. Hudson had to be everywhere: diving at the near post, reaching up to protect the crossbar, punching a shot away at the far post, making a leaping grab of the corner kick. And when she was out of position Lindsey Sowder came up big, kicking away a loose ball in the last minutes.
"Toward the end of the game when they were putting it on, it got really aggressive," Hudson said. "My defense did such a good job. I'm so proud of them."
Both teams play in Thursday's region quarterfinals. But Mitchell and Land O'Lakes could meet again in the region final.
"I'm hoping that will happen," Kukec said. "I think the verdict about who is the best in Pasco County is not over yet."