North Pinellas girls soccer programs are no strangers to success and the 2018-2019 season kicks into high gear next week.
Races to reach district tournament championship games begin Monday and extend to Saturday. Lose again before reaching the title and it’s all over.
Locally, two teams are standing out as those with the best chances to hoist trophies and host first-round regional playoff games: Palm Harbor University and Countryside.
PHU, Pinellas County’s premier girls soccer program for the better part of two decades, is at it again. The Hurricanes entered last Friday’s match against Largo at 8-0-1 overall and in control of capturing the Class 5A District 7 top seed.
As usual, PHU has dominated the midfield and stifled opponents’ ability to create offense. The Hurricanes defense and senior keeper Cameron Laine surrendered just two goals through nine matches.
It’s not just about the back end, either. PHU possesses perhaps the county’s top one-two scoring punch in seniors Alivia Gonzalez and Mary Raymond. Gonzalez, a University of Florida signee, became PHU’s top all-time goal scorer earlier this year and the duo has netted 26 of the team’s 40 goals.
A sixth-straight district championship is no guarantee, however. The lone blemish on PHU’s schedule is a 1-1 draw at Plant on Dec. 14. And the Panthers aren’t the only game challenger the District 5A-7 tournament. Wiregrass Ranch, the Jan. 24-31 tournament’s host, and Steinbrenner represent legitimate threats. The Hurricanes won both head-to-heads in 1-0 decisions.
Another one of PHU’s hard-fought, 1-0 victories came against Countryside back in November. The Cougars entered last Friday 8-3-1 overall and winners of two straight in the new year. Beating Northeast last week would put them at 5-1 in the District 4A-10 standings with an opportunity to challenge Seminole for the top seed. The Countryside-Seminole match Dec. 14 was cancelled and rescheduled.
Like PHU, the Cougars don’t have a smooth path to the championship game. In addition to Seminole, St. Petersburg can pull off big wins. The Green Devils did that Dec. 12 by handing Countryside its lone league loss, 2-1, on Dec. 12.
If Countryside manages to capture the district’s top seed, they’ll get to host every game it plays from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1. The Cougars are the defending District 4A-10 champs and are led by some fantastic, young scorers. Sophomore Chloey Conte leads the team in goals scored, followed by freshman Sarah Hotung.
While PHU and Countryside are North Pinellas’ favorites to advance to regionals, they’re not alone.
Dunedin and Tarpon Springs both play in the nine-team District 3A-10. The league is controlled fairly well by Largo and Osceola, but Dunedin found itself unbeaten heading into this week. The Falcons are 6-0-4 and worked draws out of both Largo and Osceola earlier this season. Tarpon Springs sits at 7-5-2 and didn’t play Largo or Osceola quite as well but does have a quality 5-4 win over Countryside under its belt.
Dunedin played itself into the district semifinals three times in the past four years in attempts to end a lengthy postseason drought. The Falcons and Tarpon Springs are to reach the league title game, but all it takes is 80 minutes of well-played soccer on the right night to shake things up.