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It has been a banner year for boys soccer in the area, with three teams - Palm Harbor U., St. Petersburg Catholic and Countryside - reaching the state final four beginning today at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. This is the first season in 22 years that three Pinellas County teams have advanced to the final four and only the second time since the state finals began in 1977. "I think it speaks to the level of talent in the area," Palm Harbor University coach Mike Mannino said. "These kids have come through the club level and they're ready when they get to high school. This area is a hotbed of soccer right now."


WHO: Palm Harbor University (24-4)

vs. Fort Myers (24-4-2)

WHEN: 7 p.m.

LAST STATE TITLE: Palm Harbor U. (2002); Fort Myers (1999)

UP NEXT: Winner of Auburndale/Wolfson semifinal on Thursday at 7 p.m.

THE SKINNY: PHU returns to the state semifinals for the first time since 2002 when the Hurricanes captured their first and only state championship. PHU lost in the district final to East Lake, but roared through three very different matches to reach the semis. The Hurricanes had an easy time with Leto (4-1), dominated Manatee (3-0, 11 total yellow cards) in an extremely physical match and squeaked by the Eagles 4-3 in overtime of the region final Friday. Mannino poured over film the past four days to identify PHU's problems with set pieces. Two of the three goals against the Eagles came off throw-ins and the other off a cornerkick. PHU will be without starting left back David Cole, who injured his right knee in the East Lake match, today. Cole had his knee scoped Saturday and Mannino said there is a possibility he could return for the final if the Hurricanes advance. Striker Eugene Starikov's hat trick against East Lake brought his goal total to 40 heading into today's semifinal.


WHO: St. Petersburg Catholic (21-1-4) vs. Gulliver Prep (21-1-1)

WHEN: Noon

LAST STATE TITLE: St. Petersburg Catholic (none); Gulliver Prep (2000)

UP NEXT: Winner of Jacksonville Bolles/Lake Highland Prep semifinal on Thursday at 5 p.m.

THE SKINNY: SPC returns to the final four for the second straight season after losing to Melbourne Central Catholic 2-0 in last year's semifinal. That experience should play to the Barons' favor as SPC starts nine seniors. Matt Skonicki, who became the first boys soccer player in SPC history to sign a Division I scholarship, is the offense's catalyst. Skonicki has excellent vision and playmaking ability from the attacking midfield but is also a scoring threat, leading the Barons with 22 goals. Forwards Ryan Covington and Justin Castellano each have 21 goals. Gulliver Prep finally got past American Heritage this season to reach the state finals. The Patriots had knocked out the Raiders the past four years in the region semifinals before Gulliver Prep broke through. The Raiders have won three state championships, including back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000.

- BRANDON WRIGHT, Times staff writer