New Year looks promising for North Pinellas soccer

Palm Harbor University senior Isabella Mihaj, No. 24, is one of the Hurricanes’ top returners from last year’s Class 5A state championship squad. PHU entered this week 9-1-1 overall this season.

Winter break is over and the mad dash toward district tournaments and regionals is on.

Boys and girls soccer programs have about two weeks of regular-season matches left until district tournaments begin Jan. 27.

The 2018-2019 soccer season was something of a banner year for Pinellas County. Led by the Class 5A state champion Palm Harbor University girls, six total teams reached the state final four. St. Petersburg (4A), Largo (3A) and Indian Rocks Christian (1A) were the other girls state qualifiers and Seminole (4A) and Shorecrest (1A) did it for the boys. Shorecrest advanced an additional step and finished as state runner-up.

In North Pinellas, Calvary Christian and Dunedin joined PHU as girls postseason qualifiers. Calvary and East Lake played beyond district tournaments as well.

Matching or bettering last year’s results will be challenging, but a number of North County programs appear to be up to the challenge. Qualifying will be slightly different, however, because of new Florida High School Athletic Association rules. Similar to other sports, boys and girls soccer will now rely on MaxPreps.com rankings to determine regional at-large bids. All district tournament champions still advance automatically.

GIRLS SOCCER

Gotta start with the champs.

PHU ended the decade by bookending the 10-year span with state titles. The Hurricanes’ victory in 2010 marked the second time the program won consecutive state championships. The first time came a decade before that – 1999 and 2000.

If the pattern continues, the Hurricanes are due for title number seven in 2020.

Easier said than done, of course, but Coach Randy Irick has PHU ready to make a run. Despite losing a stellar senior class from last year’s squad, the Hurricanes enter 2020 with a 9-1-1 overall record and plenty capable of winning the challenging Class 7A District 7 tournament. Whoever wins the league title will have to get through multiple playoff-worthy opponents. Plant (9-0-0) and Sickles (7-1-0) are equally capable of winning one of the region’s toughest districts and MaxPreps.com ranks Plant No. 16 in the nation.

Back in the mix after a few atypical down years is East Lake. The Eagles have sat out regionals three straight seasons after reaching the Class 4A state final four in 2016.

This year, it’s back to business. East Lake entered the week 9-2 overall and winners of seven straight. Similar to PHU, getting through districts will be no easy task. District 6A-5 features two competitive teams from Pasco County in Wiregrass Ranch (7-1-1) and Mitchell (4-3-0).

Also playing themselves into contention so far this season are Tarpon Springs (6-3-1), Countryside (5-4-1) and Calvary Christian (3-3-2).

Tarpon Springs and Hudson appear to be on a collision course to play in the District 4A-7 championship match, with Dunedin (3-5-1) being the league wild card.

Countryside may be able to return to the postseason even if it doesn’t win the District 5A-9 title, but beating out River Ridge (7-4-1) for the crown would eliminate the uncertainty. The two league foes met on Dec. 11 and the Cougars fell 1-0 at River Ridge.

BOYS SOCCER

The girls remain a step ahead of the boys in terms of North Pinellas postseason contenders, but that doesn’t mean there’s no potential.

East Lake’s 4-3-0 record doesn’t look all that impressive at first glance. The Eagles have played a difficult schedule, however, and have logged victories over Osceola (11-2-1) and rival PHU (6-4-2). The team’s three losses are against Wiregrass Ranch (11-1-2), Bloomingdale (6-2-1) and Tampa Catholic (9-1-1).

East Lake participated in the Tampa Bay Invitational last weekend and will be well-prepared come district tournament time later this month. The Eagles will need it because District 6A-5 is brutal. None of the league’s six teams entered this week with a sub-.500 record and Wiregrass Ranch, Sunlake (11-1-2) and Mitchell (8-2-3) are legitimate title contenders. There’s a good chance two at-large bids from 6A-5 join the champion into regionals, but at least one worthy team will be left out.

PHU failed to qualify for the playoffs last year after advancing to the region finals three of the previous four seasons. The Hurricanes have hovered around .500 throughout the year and so have the other teams in the 7A-7 standings. Steinbrenner (6-4-2), Sickles (5-5-1) and Plant (3-2-3) have performed unevenly, leaving the district title up for grabs.

Calvary Christian joined East Lake as North Pinellas’ two postseason qualifiers last year. The Warriors (5-5-2) get to host the 3A-7 tournament, but the top seed will likely go to Tampa Catholic. As of this week, Calvary is ranked No. 23 in the Class 3A standings. All six 3A-7 teams are ranked within the top 28 out of 83 Class 3A teams, however. That means the league has a great chance at sending multiple at-large bids into regionals, but Calvary has work to do to climb the rankings.