At this time last week, it looked as if Pinellas County girls soccer would have a big presence at this week’s state tournament in DeLand. St. Petersburg, Largo, Indian Rocks Christian and Palm Harbor University all advanced to the state semifinals.
But now there is only one team left standing: Palm Harbor University. The Hurricanes had to sweat out a 2-1 win in penalty kicks over Lake Mary. Now comes the Class 5A state championship match against Cypress Bay on Friday at 4 p.m. on the campus of Stetson University.
This will be the Hurricanes’ first state final since 2010, when they beat Boca Raton in overtime. Cypress Bay will be making the school’s first appearance in a state championship game.
PHU (17-1-1) has consistently been one of the county’s best teams. Aside from 2010, the Hurricanes also won state titles in 1999, 2000, 2006 and 2009. And they maded yet another final in 2005.
After the 2017 season, longtime coach John Planamenta resigned. Randy Irick took over and led the Hurricanes to the Class 5A state semis, a 2-1 loss at Oviedo.
With the key players from that team returning, it’s not surprising that PHU is a game away from a sixth state title.
“We knew the next two years were going to be a good opportunity for us to make a strong run,” Irick said. “We had a good group of upperclassmen who had experience. We have the goal-scoring abilities of Alivia (Gonzalez), the leadership qualities of Jillian (Fragale) and Mary Raymond. Not that we don’t plan on being back next year, but this year and last year were times to make a run.”
Gonzalez and Raymond have been together since they were freshmen. Gonzalez, a University of Florida commit, is the school’s all-time leading scorer with 117 career goals. She has been clutch in the postseason. Gonzalez had two goals in a district semifinal win over Steinbrenner. She was shutout in the 1-0 district final loss to Wiregrass Ranch, but came back with the winner in a 1-0 victory over Lakewood Ranch. She also scored twice in a 3-2 comeback win over Winter Park in the region final.
Raymond, a Samford commit, is used all over the field. She has played defense, midfield and up front as a scorer. If the Hurricanes need a goal, Raymond moves up. If they are protecting a lead, she plays back.
But it takes more than two players to win a championship. Fragale, a senior, is a shutdown defender. Junior defender Isabella Mihaj is just as tough. Senior Lauren Kane scored the game tying goal against Lake Mary. And senior goalkeeper Cameron Laine has allowed seven goals all season.
Laine came up with three straight saves in the shootout win over Lake Mary.
“I was really nervous going into it but we were able to pull it out,” Laine said. “To be able to play for the state championship, that’s something we wanted to do since the season started.”
The only stumbles for the Hurricanes were a 1-1 tie against Plant and the district loss to Wiregrass Ranch. They avenged the latter with a 2-0 win over the Bulls in the region semifinals.
Now comes a crack at their first state title in nine years.
“This means so much to us,’’ said senior Alex Shanabrook, who scored the winning goal in the shootout. “A lot of us are seniors so this is our last chance at it. We’re all very excited.’’
Cypress Bay (19-0-1) has only allowed three goals all season and not given up a goal in five games. The Lightning, in fact, has not given up more than one goal in any game. Its goal differential this season is 91-3.
The stats are impressive, but PHU has faith.
“This team has confidence in itself,” Irick said. “We battle to the end. We were down 2-1 with 20 minutes left (against Winter Park) and came back. That gave us even more momentum, more confidence to keep plugging away.”