PALM HARBOR — New year, same goal.
Palm Harbor University girls soccer is one of those programs that doesn’t rebuild, it just reloads.
Year after year.
Losing a lot of seniors just opens playing time for the next batch of high-quality girls to continue PHU’s excellence. The Hurricanes extended their playoff qualification streak to 21 years last year and returned to the state semifinals for the third time in five years. PHU’s reached the third round, or region finals, in each of those past five seasons.
Offer up that kind of success to any other program in Pinellas County and not even one would trade places. But for as impressive as the recent past has been, there’s always a state-championship-or-bust mentality at PHU. Five Hurricanes teams have lifted that prestigious trophy since 1998-1999, but it hasn’t been accomplished since 2010 – half a lifetime ago for current players.
Title hopes were dashed last year with a tough 2-1 road loss at Oviedo in the Class 5A state final four. There was — and still is — a missed-opportunity type feeling surrounding that defeat outside of Orlando.
With 14 returning players, including 11 seniors, PHU is ready to finish the job.
“We’ve been wanting the state championship since freshman year,” said senior Mary Raymond, who will continue her academic and athletic careers at Samford University, in Alabama. “So, this year that’s definitely what we have our eyes on.
“The majority of us are back. We’re only missing like two starters from last year. A lot of us are still kind of hurt from (the Oviedo loss) so we’re trying to get back. We know how it feels to lose, so we don’t want that feeling again.”
The 2018-2019 season is still young, but the ’Canes are doing a good job of avoiding those losing emotions. Entering last Friday night’s Class 5A District 7 battle at Plant High, PHU stood at 6-0 overall and 2-0 in league play. The high school sports website MaxPreps.com has the Hurricanes ranked fifth in the state and eighth in the nation.
(PHU ended up playing to a 1-1 draw at Plant.)
“We’re playing at a very high level,” second-year coach Randy Irick said following an 8-0 win at Alonso last week. “Palm Harbor has a long history of having quality teams, so the level of play that’s expected of us is very high and I’m happy with how our girls are playing. The seniors are all stepping up and showing their senior leadership and it’s my job as a coach to keep getting the best out of our girls and to not take anything too lightly.”
Two of those seniors leading the way are Raymond and Alivia Gonzalez. They pair up as one of the region’s most potent scoring tandem and the latter, a University of Florida signee, is close to becoming the school’s career leader in goals scored. Three goals at Alonso last week put Gonzalez two shy of Catherine Brinkman’s record.
When asked last week about reaching that individual milestone, Gonzalez said it would be an honor and it’s exciting to think about, especially considering how many great former Hurricanes have come through the program. She also said it’s secondary to her true goal, which is why Irick feels so privileged to have her on the roster.
“What’s special about Alivia is that it’s not something that really drives her,” Irick said. “Of course, every striker and every forward wants that individual goal, but she looks at it as though the state championship is more important. She mentioned to a reporter last week after the Wiregrass game that it’s all about the state title coming back to her hometown.”
With Gonzalez and Raymond powering the offense and fellow senior captains Julia Cesta and Jillian Fragale fortifying the defense and midfield, PHU is primed for another district championship and state title run.
The Hurricanes entered last year’s district tournament with a couple ties and a late-season loss that Irick said helped his team refocus. A regular-season goal this year is to not need any refocus moments and Gonzalez and Raymond agreed there’s room to grow.
“We’ve fixed some stuff that we were struggling with at the beginning of the season, so as long as we keep fixing those little holes I think we’ll keep progressing,” Raymond said, mentioning some girls playing in new positions.
“Everything’s slowly falling into place how we want it,” Gonzalez said. “We started a new formation so we’re all getting used to it and it’s starting to settle in.”