EAGLE LAKE — A crisp evening in the midsection of Polk County quickly segued into a chilly Saturday.
By contrast, Steinbrenner’s offense stayed on crisp all night.
Behind senior Derek Gebhard’s first hat trick of the season, the Warriors (17-2-3) earned the first region final berth in the program’s four-year history with a 6-1 romp of Lake Region in the Class 4A semifinals.
A 5-foot-10, 145-pound forward with sprinter’s fleetness, Gebhard (pictured) led an onslaught that produced 18 total shots and a 2-0 lead before the bulk of Lake Region’s student section arrived.
“We knew we couldn’t make stupid fouls early in the game, because the last game we played (a 7-1 quarterfinal rout of Ridge Community), we made stupid fouls early and …we were tied at halftime,” Gebhard said.
“Our coach (Chad Ebright) was pushing us to not make stupid fouls and keep playing our game and not let the pace of the game slow down when we got ahead.”
Lake Region (16-4-2) answered the Warriors’ two quick goals — by Enrique Barboto and Austin Labban — when junior Francisco Gonzalez took the ball near the 18-yard box, chipped it over the head of oncoming keeper Christian Knight, and watched it slowly roll in.
But seven minutes into the second half, Warriors senior Jason Collister gathered a shot that bounced off the crossbar and drilled it in from the top of the 18.
Gebhard followed three minutes later when he brought down a ball in the air, cut to the left around two converging defenders and nailed a 10-yard shot into the net’s right corner. With roughly 11 minutes to go, a Labban shot that bounced off the crossbar went right to Gebhard for another goal.
He sent his final shot, off a corner kick, into the bottom right corner of the net.
“When we were up a couple, they scored and got the momentum,” Ebright said. “But once we got back together, we put the pressure back on.”
Class 5A: Throughout regulation, East Lake kept finding open spaces in front in the net. But the Eagles’ shots kept getting thwarted.
Plant did not have much luck either. That had to do as much with the play of the goalkeepers, who both displayed great reflexes, instinctive positioning and a proficiency for blocking shots. There were several spectacular saves.
This is how it went for most of Saturday’s Class 5A region semifinal, with both teams pushing the ball past midfield and into position to score, only to watch shots fall into the hands of the keepers.
After 80 minutes, a handful of legitimate opportunities and no goals, the game went to overtime
And after playing valiantly through two 10-minute overtime periods, the teams extended the game as far as it could go — to the drama of penalty kicks.
That’s where East Lake’s Jeff Richmond came up huge. He stopped two penalty kicks, including the final one on a one-handed snare that preserved a 1-0 victory (3-2 in PKs) for the Eagles.
“I wasn’t really nervous when we went into penalty kicks,” Richmond said. “I was more excited. I like penalty kicks.”
East Lake rotated its keepers through most of the season. But Richmond played the entire game, and kept smothering shots. His play was a big reason the Eagles decided to keep him in for penalty kicks.
The Eagles (14-3-5) had several chances to win before going into overtime.
Josh Page, who had two goals in the region semifinals, had a shot that just sailed wide in the final two minutes of regulation.
In the first overtime, East Lake had another shot that hit off the top crossbar.
In penalty kicks, Brendan Weigley, a freshman, connected to give East Lake a 3-1 lead. Auston Molina hit one for Plant. Then the Panthers missed their final attempt. That set up Richmond with a chance to seal the win.
“Their keeper came through and made some great saves,” Plant coach John Feeley said. “We played well all game. We just couldn’t convert the chances that we had.”
Class 3A: Dustin Dahlquist called it the best 20 minutes of soccer his club has played all season. And it came at a crucial time for his Palmetto Tigers, who downed visiting Jesuit 4-1.
Palmetto broke a 1-all deadlock at halftime with two quick strikes in the second period to advance to the program’s first region final since 2010.
After Jesuit (21-4-4) dominated the early flow of the game, Palmetto turned the tide with a score by Gregorio Calvillo, who slipped a second effort into the net after his first shot was blocked. That armed Palmetto (24-1-3) with momentum, until Jesuit was given a free kick off a Palmetto miscue late in the first half.
Palmetto keeper Daniel Martinez handled the ball outside the penalty box while punting the ball away in the 32nd minute.
Jesuit’s Michael Conlon curled the free kick inside the right post to knot the score. Palmetto allowed just three shots — one on goal — in the second half.
“I don’t know if there’s anyone that can beat (Palmetto), quite frankly,” Jesuit coach Bob Bauman said. “I had the feeling coming into regions that they were the best team, and probably the best team we would face if we could get through (Saturday) then we’d have the inside track.”
Class A: Saint Stephen’s made a few too many mistakes as defending state champ Tampa Prep won Saturday’s Class A region semifinal 2-1 on the road.
“It was the usual one-goal game with Tampa Prep,” Saint Stephen’s coach Marc Jones said. “…We were missing a lot of players because of injuries and had players out there who shouldn’t have been playing with the injuries they were carrying. As soon as we lost a player (ejection) to go down to 10 players we knew it would be tough, and the writing was on the wall.”
Saint Stephen’s (16-3-1) took its only lead midway through the first half on a penalty kick by Toby Howell. But before the Falcons had a chance to catch their breath the Terrapins responded with a goal from Macsen Pritchard less than a minute later.
Tampa Prep (27-1-3) got the winning goal about midway through the second half when freshman Nick Brabant scored on a set play.
Tampa Prep is 6-2 against the Falcons and has won four of the past six games against them.
Class 2A: At Arcadia, Daniel Felman and Daley Donigan scored goals to lift Berkeley Prep to a 2-1 victory over Arcadia DeSoto. The Buccaneers (15-10-2) earned their sixth consecutive region final berth.
Felman’s goal, his 22nd of the season, occurred with 17 minutes remaining.
Staff writer Bob Putnam contributed to this report, which used Information from the Bradenton Herald.