LARGO — Even on a chilly evening, the cream rose to the top.
Setting up a rematch of from last year's Class 3A playoffs, top-seeded Osceola and No. 2 Largo shook off their opposition Wednesday and will clash once again Friday night at Largo High for the District 10 crown.
Osceola (17-3-1, 8-0-1) prevailed in both the district title match and the region semifinals over the Packers in 2017 before falling to eventual state champ Merritt Island.
After a dominant but scoreless first half, the Warriors took advantage of a strong wind at their backs to pull away for a 3-0 victory over fifth-seed Tarpon Springs (5-9-3, 2-4-1).
Battling through what head coach Steve Kuplicki termed a "fender bender" suffered earlier this week, Rachel Dirks was a constant thorn in Tarpon's side. The senior registered eight shots and the first two Warrior goals before a re-occurrence of neck spasms sent her to the sidelines.
Almost three minutes into second-half action, senior Sophia Masut sent in a fine 40-yard free kick to Dirks at the top of the 18. Dirks drove a one-timer that ricocheted off of keeper Nicole Alexiou's arms and over her head, bouncing slowly into the cage for the only goal Osceola would need.
"In the first half, we tried to play a lot of thru balls but it was hard due to the wind," Masut said. "We were able to pass more effectively in the second half, we were able to get more balls through the defense."
Dirks struck again in the 62nd minute, taking a feed from Natalie Norris and ripping a 12-yard laser past a helpless Alexiou for career goal No. 102.
Clipping the heel of a Tarpon defender in the 68th minute, Dirks went to the ground in pain, was sent off with a yellow card and didn't return.
"Rachel played with a lot of spirit, a lot of fight (Wednesday)," said Kuplicki. "She plays full-bore and she hit the ground a few times. If I had to do it again, I probably would have taken her out earlier but she definitely wanted to stay in."
Freshman Brooke McGowan worked a fine give-and-go with Masut to a clear 15-yard shot that blazed past Alexiou with 7:47 remaining to close out the scoring.
In the nightcap, a young Largo squad rode unselfish first-half play to a 4-0 advantage. Seven Packers sparked the explosion that led to a 5-1 victory over third-seeded Dunedin.
"Eight freshmen joined the team this year, and that's with our entire starting lineup returning," said Packers coach Dan Flynn. "It made a good team better."
Freshman Hannah Rigali got things started on nice centering pass that senior Breauna Dailey put on keeper Sara Barrentine. Freshman Monique Gray snagged the rebound and popped it home in the 12th minute.
The last 10 minutes of the half cemented the verdict for the Packers (18-0-3, 7-0-2), starting with a perfect dribble-drive from freshman Kira Rigali off of a Julia Violante feed followed five minutes later by Violante's first of two goals, both coming off of wins of 50-50 balls.
"I feel that, at the beginning of the year, we didn't really gel yet," Violante, a sophomore, said. "As the year went on we learned to play together, and now our front line is really connected."
With less than a minute until the half, Catrina Salazar delivered a beautiful corner kick to freshman Mckenzie Emery, who headed the ball into the open left side of the net.
Dunedin (11-5-2, 6-2-1) broke up the shutout three minutes into second-half play on a strong left-wing run and finish from Jenny Diaz for her 23rd goal this year, only to see Largo reassert its four-goal advantage 15 minutes later on sophomore Violante's breakaway marker.
"Julia has (a team-high) 16 goals now," Flynn said of a squad with four double-digit goal scorers. "Her speed is an added plus for her offense, and her fearlessness to make plays up top makes her a threat."
And after a 3-1 victory over Osceola in the PCAC final, Largo will look to repeat on Friday, with a home region playoff game hanging in the balance.