1. Sports

Youthful St. Petersburg ahead of schedule, ends state drought

Francesca Ycaza (!0) dives past a Bulls defender to chase the ball. The St Petersburg Green Devils defeated the Bloomingdale Bulls 2-1 in a thrilling overtime girls soccer match to win the Class 4A Regional Semi Finals at St Petersburg High School on Tuesday evening, January 3, 2017.
DAVID W DOONAN | Special To The Times
Francesca Ycaza (!0) dives past a Bulls defender to chase the ball. The St Petersburg Green Devils defeated the Bloomingdale Bulls 2-1 in a thrilling overtime girls soccer match to win the Class 4A Regional Semi Finals at St Petersburg High School on Tuesday evening, January 3, 2017.
DAVID W DOONAN | Special To The Times
Published Feb. 7, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — It looked as if St. Petersburg's season was over. Its 1-0 lead against Seminole in the Class 4A, District 10 semifinals evaporated with 16 seconds left on an own goal. Overtime solved nothing, so it was on to dreaded penalty kicks.

PKs are usually five rounds. This night, they went 12. Green Devil goalkeeper Angeline Friel kept making saves, eight of them to be exact. When St. Petersburg scored in the 12th round, it secured a spot in the district final against Countryside and a berth in the region playoffs.

"There were probably three or four times during those penalty kicks where I thought, 'This is it, we're going home,' " Green Devils coach Rui Farias said. "Then Angeline makes another save. I look over at (Seminole coach) T.J. (Grzesikowski) and I say, 'Is anybody going to win this game?' I was trying to keep score but I just gave up. The referee will let us know who wins."

St. Petersburg hasn't lost since.

The Green Devils (17-2) beat Countryside in the district final. Then came a 3-0 win over King. In the region semifinals, St. Petersburg got past Bloomingdale 2-1 in overtime thanks to a goal by freshman Alexa Goldberg.

The region final against Estero was another nail-biter. St. Petersburg scored on a late goal by freshman Alexis Hiltunen and held on to win 1-0. Now it's off to Fort Lauderdale on Friday night for a state semifinal against St. Thomas Aquinas (20-1-2). It's the first time the Green Devils have played in a state semifinal since 2006.

Farias has been the girls coach 13 years. He said there are similarities between the 2006 team and this year.

"We lost a lot of seniors off the (2006) team and we were kind of young," Farias said. "But they were talented. Same thing here."

The Green Devils are indeed young. Hiltunen and Goldberg have fit right in and made an impact on offense. Goldberg isn't even a natural field player. She is a goalkeeper in club soccer.

Fellow freshmen Holly Beaver and Sophia Vesely have played like seniors on defense. Friel, the goalkeeper, is only a sophomore. Offensive threats Francesca Ycaza (junior) and Caroline DeWitt (sophomore) are also underclassmen who contribute.

There are only three seniors, defender Josie Barnhart, defender Alex Calhoun and midfielder Hannah Deson. If youth was going to be a problem, those fears were erased early.

"We were playing Northeast (in the first regular-season game) and the freshmen were scoring goals like it was nothing," Deson said. "So we were like, 'Oh, okay. We've got some freshmen who can score. We're going to be all right.' "

And Calhoun said the younger players didn't back down during the pressure of the postseason.

"I've yet to see any of these (younger players) drop their heads," she said. "They are the ones yelling at us, 'We can't give up now!' They're in our faces getting us fired up. It works for us."

Farias, who doubled as the boys coach before focusing on just the girls this season, had his concerns prior to the season as well.

"It was kind of strange, after two games they looked like they've been playing together for years," Farias said. "I think it was the East Lake game just before the (Christmas) break, we beat them 3-0 and it could've been worse. I was thinking, 'Wow, I've been waiting for that for a long, long time.' "

To be sure, St. Thomas Aquinas will be the toughest team St. Petersburg has played this season. The Raiders have won 14 state championships since 1990. The last title came in 2015. This season, they have outscored opponents 135-6.

It may be a little intimidating, but St. Petersburg plans to enjoy every minute.

"I'm super proud and a little surprised about how the team has done," Barnhart said. "And when we get in these situations it's like, we've been here before. We know what to do."


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