LAND O’LAKES — Sunlake figured a run toward the Class 3A state title wouldn’t be easy.
In Wednesday night’s playoff opener against Mitchell, the perfect Seahawks got their biggest challenge in weeks — and maybe the wakeup call they needed.
Sunlake gave up two second-half goals and hung on in the closing minutes to escape with a 4-2 home win over the Mustangs in a Class 3A region quarterfinal.
“It felt good,” Seahawks senior Connor Gilboy said. “Sorta.”
Despite snapping a four-game shutout streak and allowing multiple goals for only the third time this winter, Sunlake (28-0) advances to host Pasco in Saturday’s Class 3A region semifinals.
In the first half, a victory seemed like a foregone conclusion for a Seahawks team that beat the Mustangs 3-0 earlier this season.
Mitchell (18-4-3) struggled against a loaded Sunlake offense with a strong breeze at its back. Chris Wilkinson’s header in the fifth minute opened scoring, and Connor Spencer and Derek Noble both added first-half goals to give the Seahawks a 3-0 halftime lead.
“We dug ourselves in too big of a hole,” Mustangs coach Oscar Ubillus said. “Too big of a hole.”
Mitchell nearly climbed out of it with the wind advantage in the final 40 minutes. Sunlake allowed an own goal with 26 minutes remaining, and the game started to turn.
“We’re just coming in thinking we’re the greatest team out there because we’re 27-0,” said Spencer, who added two assists. “We can’t think like that.”
Chet Kirtley knocked in a cross with 18 minutes to go to cut Mitchell’s deficit to 3-2, and the Mustangs blitzed Sunlake’s freshman goalkeeper, Dan Hrenko, the rest of the way.
Ryan Kennedy’s lob hit the crossbar. Headers and kicks flew into the side of the net. And Hrenko made six key saves — including a leap in the box with two minutes left — to preserve the victory.
“I love that kid,” Spencer said of his first-year starter.
Spencer added his 36th goal of the season on an uncontested breakaway in the closing minute.
The passionate play turned fiery in the second half, and officials had to separate the teams twice. One player was ejected.
3A: Pasco pulls it together late
NEW PORT RICHEY —Pasco’s surprising run from early-season obscurity and a three-year region playoff layoff isn’t over yet thanks to a gritty performance Wednesday night.
The Pirates advanced through to the Class 3A region semifinals with a 3-2 win over River Ridge, setting up a rematch of their district final with Sunlake.
In the early going, it looked as if Pasco (13-6-1) would stroll away with the match. After Michael Mazza broke the scoreless tie just after the first-half water break, Eduardo Montes made it 2-0 only minutes later on a pass from Jose Flores.
River Ridge (10-7-5) refused to fade quietly in front of the home crowd, however. Christian de la Grande stole the ball at midfield and drilled a liner into the left side of the net to cut the lead to 2-1. Less than a minute later, de la Grande struck again, this time on a Justin DaSilva rebound from point-blank range.
“Every time we got up, we didn’t play very well,” Pasco coach Barry Grayling said. “We are definitely going to have to work on that if we are going to have a chance (against Sunlake).”
Coming out of halftime, the Pirates looked motivated once again, with Montes scoring his second goal at the 34-minute mark.
Pasco fought off some solid opportunities after that defensively, and play became more physical with four yellow cards doled out by officials.
Correspondent Derek J. LaRiviere contributed to this report.