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Land O’ Lakes girls falter in state semifinal, but optimism remains

The future appears bright for the Gators, who will return the bulk of a young and talented squad.
Land O' Lakes may have fallen one game short of a state final, but, as coach Jen Craven says: “We have some good kids coming from the local middle school. Looking forward, I don’t see any reason why you won’t see us in the show next year." [JOSEPH WEISER | Icon SMI via ZUMA Press]

PONTE VEDRA —There will be plenty of teachable moments for the Land O’ Lakes girls soccer team, considering the roster is stacked with talented underclassmen and has only three seniors.

But the learning curve for the 2019-2020 season came to an abrupt halt on a windy Friday night in Ponte Vedra. The host Sharks struck for a goal in the 10th minute on the way to a 2-0 decision over the Gators in the Class 5A state semifinals.

So it is Ponte Vedra (16-5-4) that will make the trek to DeLand for a title-game tilt against powerhouse Fort Lauderdale Archbishop McCarthy next Friday.

But instead of dwelling on a missed opportunity, the outlook is outstanding for Land O’ Lakes (16-6-1). Three of the top four goal-scorers are freshmen, as is starting keeper Caidee Sumner. Three seniors will be lost, but only two played significant minutes.

“We played a lot of our players, so everyone had minutes in a tough game like this,” Gators coach Jen Craven said. “We have some good kids coming from the local middle school. Looking forward, I don’t see any reason why you won’t see us in the show next year.”

This season’s show could have lasted longer but for a resilient Sharks side that has not been beaten in 16 consecutive matches. With the 20-mph wind in the team’s face to open the match, Ponte Vedra coach Dave Silverberg said it was important to attack early.

The Sharks controlled possession for the opening 20 minutes and consistently challenged on the left side. That paid off for Ponte Vedra when Cassidy Bierwagen hauled in pass from Eli Mabe and gathered the ball outside the penalty area, converting into the right side of the net for her 10th goal this season.

It was tough sledding against the Sharks, who have allowed only three goals during a 16-match unbeaten streak. Maybe the best opportunity came in the second half when the ball caromed through the Ponte Vedra penalty area with three Gators players near, but no one was able to control it and the Sharks cleared it from danger.

“We were fortunate. That’s a good team there,” Silverberg said. “A bounce here and there and it’s 1-1.”

Instead it was 2-0 when Mabe scored off a cross in the 59th minute.

Land O’ Lakes was unable to muster the offense that it had displayed during a six-match win streak, averaging six goals a match during that stretch. That task was made more difficult after a tussle at midfield with 14 minutes remaining resulted in a red card for the Gators and a player advantage for the Sharks.

That ended a bid for a third title-game appearance. But after returning to the state semifinals following a two-year hiatus, the program might be a fixture at that stage and beyond.

“Hopefully, we come back next year,” Craven said. “Hopefully, we can make it this far or even further.”