TRINITY — After falling behind by two goals in each of its two previous matchups with Gulf, River Ridge knew it needed a quick start to have a shot at upsetting the Class 3A, District 8 No. 2 seed.
So the Royal Knights put their speed up front and reaped the rewards in a game-changing two-minute span. River Ridge scored twice in 110 seconds to pull away with a 3-1 win over Gulf in Thursday night’s district semifinal at Mitchell.
The win vaults the Royal Knights (9-6-5) into the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and into tonight’s district championship showdown with rival Mitchell, which scored all six of its goals in the second half of a shutout win over Fivay.
“We wanted to come out fast,” River Ridge coach Mike McHugh said. “We wanted to initiate contact.”
His Royal Knights did that with three good scoring chances in the first eight minutes before finally breaking through. Junior Jason Dovydaitis danced down the left side and shot across his body to open the scoring with 28:50 left in the first half. Less than two minutes later, Jason Navas capitalized on a short shot after Gulf’s goalkeeper left the net.
Gulf (13-8-1) answered early in the second half with a goal by Saige Deluca. River Ridge’s Christian Del Grande added another goal with 13 minutes left, which was more than enough cushion for a Royal Knights defense that has allowed more than two goals to only Sunlake and Mitchell.
“We have a mixture of brains, speed and brawn running around out there,” McHugh said.
All three will be tested tonight by a Mustangs (18-3-3) team that was in a scoreless tie with Fivay (9-11-4) at halftime before exploding with four goals in a nine-minute span.
Nathaniel Hayes scored his 12th goal of the season five minutes into the second half to open the floodgate. Chet Kirtley hit Lewis Pepper a minute and a half later for another goal, and Hayes knocked in a penalty kick 30 seconds after that to put the Mustangs up 3-0.
Pepper added another goal — his 12th of the year —- off a Hayes assist. Mico Petrovich and Jesse Zellers also scored to put Mitchell back in the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
4A-4: Springstead stymied by Vanguard again
After making the state playoffs in Sal Calabrese’s final two seasons at the helm, Springstead was unable to make it three straight appearances under first-year coach Warren Schmidt.
The Eagles, who came into the Class 4A, District 4 semifinals winning 11 of their past 12, were eliminated with a 2-0 loss to Vanguard at Ocala Forest.
Springstead (14-5-1) was unable to solve the Knights (15-3-4) this season, losing all three matches by a combined six goals. The lone blemish on the Eagles’ record during this past streak came at the hands of Vanguard in a 3-1 loss in Ocala.
Vanguard keeper Thomas Trauchement shut out the Eagles in large part due to the ability of the Knights to possess the ball. Davis Hall, the team’s leading scorer, opened up the offense with his first-half goal, and Richard Gonzalez tacked on the second.
The defending district champion, Springstead lost its top four scorers from last year’s team to graduation but still was considered a contender for the title in this tournament. Schmidt, replacing a coach who won 228 games in 19 seasons with the Eagles, started 3-3-1 but rallied the club.
Momentum was on the Eagles’ side but solving Vanguard proved to be the biggest hurdle. Springstead keeper Matt McDuff, who came into the game with six shutouts, hung as tough as he could.
3A-7: Pasco shocks Land O'Lakes, earns matchup with Sunlake
DADE CITY — Unbeaten Sunlake and Land O’Lakes, a state finalist last season, entered Thursday’s Class 3A, District 7 semifinals as the top seeds and were expected to advance to tonight’s district final.
Not so fast.
Host Pasco scored in the first two minutes of the game and again in the first minute of the second half before staving off a late rally to defeat Land O’Lakes 4-2. In the first semifinal, Sunlake shut out Wesley Chapel 4-0.
“Now it’s just surviving and moving on,” Sunlake coach Sam Koleduk said.
The Seahawks (26-0) scored twice in each half to cruise past the Wildcats (5-15-2). Connor Gilboy extended his county single-season record with his 59th goal five minutes into the game.
Aaron Aucoin, Cobi Shermohammad and Allen Harasimiuk added goals to back Sunlake goalkeeper Daniel Hrenko’s 17th shutout.
In the nightcap, Jose Flores scored a hat trick and Michael Mazza had a goal and two assists to lead the Pirates (12-5-1), who ended a three-year playoff drought.
The Gators (12-5) trailed 4-0 before Sean Young got them back in the game with two goals in the second half. Young’s first was a header off Mike Moran’s corner kick from the right side.
Young then closed out the scoring with his 28th goal off a free kick from 30 yards.
3A-6: Nature Coast turned away by familiar foe
BROOKSVILLE — For the second season in a row, all that stood between Nature Coast and its first state playoff berth was Leesburg.
For the second season in a row, that obstacle proved to be too much.
Despite dominating play for 79 minutes, the Sharks fell 1-0 to the Yellow Jackets in Thursday night’s Class 3A, District 6 semifinal.
Less than a minute into regulation, Leesburg forward Clay Walters gathered the ball just past midfield and sprinted toward the net. Going 1-on-3, Walters shook both the Nature Coast defenders and keeper David Bailey to line what proved to be a backbreaking score into the back of the net.
“Leesburg was playing defensively and looking for a counterattack to score,” Nature Coast coach Ian Wald said. “Usually, it would take a little while. You don’t expect that to happen in the first (minute).”
From there, the Sharks (11-9-4) seemingly had the field tilted in their favor. The host team accrued more overall shots (19-6) and shots on goal (8-5) than Leesburg (11-6-3). After that one hiccup, Bailey redeemed himself with solid play in net, saving all three shots that came his way.
“The ball was on our half 95 percent of the game,” Wald said. “It’s tough to dominate a match and not win.”
The best opportunity for to tie the game came with less than a minute remaining in the first half. Cody Van Natter was given a corner kick and launched a drive to the near side and deflected off a Leesburg defender and toward the goal. While the ball looked to go about a yard into the net before being knocked out by Yellow Jacket keeper Austin McDaniel (seven saves), officials did not rule it a score.
Physicality increased in the second half, and although yellow cards were not doled out, two Leesburg players were helped off the field with injuries and did not return. Sharks midfielder Will Sandifer attempted a header and collided with Clayton McDaniel with 22 minutes remaining, and Sandifer, handling the ball, rushed through Tyler Ware with three minutes left.
For the second straight season, the Sharks set a program record for victories despite coming up short in their quest for the postseason.
That seemed little consolation to Wald.
“The district final monkey is still on our back,” he said. “The 11 wins are good but as a team, the biggest thing we want to do is get to the district final.”
Correspondents Steve Lee and Derek J. LaRiviere contributed to this report.