Early in the season, nobody would have blamed Tampa Prep coach Pam Smith if she had decided to hide her head whenever an opponent approached the Terrapins goal.
Tampa Prep graduated its entire defense from last year's region semifinal squad, forcing Smith to start three freshmen - Caroline Cheek, Lauren Knoke and Isabel Dalance - in the back. Carrie Field, the lone senior defender in Tampa Prep's 4-4-2 alignment, was a midfielder last season. Starting in goal would be a sophomore, Jordan Hatton.
Remarkably, the Terrapins have yielded just 11 goals in their 26-game march to the state final four and today's semifinal against Orangewood Christian. And that's against top-flight competition; three of the Terrapins' regular-season opponents also made the trip to Fort Lauderdale.
"After the first practice I was like this is fine, we've got this," Hatton said. "Part of it was (the freshmen) being confident themselves. They were able to show off their skills. They knew they were good. They had the swagger, but it wasn't like they were overconfident."
The defense's performance in the pre-Christmas Sarasota Invitational Tournament cemented the team's trust in the defensive youth movement. In four games over two days, the Terrapins allowed one goal and shut out 6A state semifinalist Melbourne 1-0.
"In the beginning it was difficult and kind of nerve-racking," Cheek, 15, said. "There was a lot of pressure on us at that point because this team has a great reputation and you're held to a higher standard."
The youngsters didn't crack, however, and instead have led the Terrapins to within two games of their first state title.
"(The freshmen) have definitely exceeded expectations," Smith said. "... But we were ready to go to Plan B if the freshmen didn't work out."
Lake Highland Prep 1, CCC 0
With a noticeable breeze swirling around the Lockhart Stadium field in Fort Lauderdale, it seemed plausible Clearwater Central Catholic's state semifinal with Lake Highland Prep would be decided on a defensive breakdown.
In the closing moments Wednesday, Lake Highland leading scorer Valorie O'Brien sent an innocent-looking ball into the box. CCC keeper Mackenzie Kenner came off her line to grab the ball in midair but had it knocked away amid a scrum of players.
The ball bounced directly at the feet of Highlanders sophomore Kristen Langermann in the middle of the box who, from 12 yards away, sent a low liner that skipped under the foot of a CCC defender and into goal with 12 seconds remaining to give Lake Highland a spot in the Class 3A final.
Tampa Prep (24-1-1) at Orangewood Christian (12-8-3), 2 p.m.
Where: Lockhart Stadium, Fort Lauderdale, $8 per session
Orangewood Christian facts: The Rams are making their third straight trip to the final four. They have more losses (8) than the other three 2A semifinal teams combined (2). This is Jim Reynolds' first season as head coach at Orangewood. He was an assistant the previous three years.
Orangewood players to watch: 5-foot-5 sophomore forward Kelsey Affolter has been red-hot in the playoffs, finding the back of the net six times in the Rams' three region wins. She has a team-leading 20 goals on the year. With 15 goals, senior midfielder Alexa Raborn is Orangewood's other primary scoring threat. Injuries have hampered the Rams all year. During one stretch, Orangewood was without five starters.
Nease 2, Cypress Lake 1
Merritt Island 2, Gulf Breeze 0
Lake Highland Prep 1, CCC 0
Bolles 5, Gulliver Prep 4
Final, 7 p.m.
Final, 5 p.m.
St. Johns Country Day vs. American Heritage, noon
Tampa Prep vs. Orangewood Christian, 2 p.m.
On the Web
Can't make the games? Staff writer Bryan Burns will blog all the action involving bay area teams. Check out blogs.tampabay.com/preps/