Tough draw: Do-or-die time for rivals PHU, East Lake

PALM HARBOR — It doesn’t really seem fair.
After a season’s worth of matches, two of the region’s top teams will have to pack it in Thursday night and call it a year.
It’s not that a win-or-go-home meeting between rivals East Lake and Palm Harbor University is an oddity, it’s just that the match is a bit too soon.
“It kind of shocked me a little bit when I realized it was going to be us and Palm Harbor right now and one of us was going to be out,” East Lake senior Indie St. George said about what will be her final time facing the Hurricanes. “It’ll be weird.”
The reason is the school’s group-of-death-style league. This year’s Class 5A District 7 field includes four teams deserving of a postseason berth – East Lake, PHU, Plant and Steinbrenner. The moment Steinbrenner secured the top seed heading into this week’s PHU-hosted district tournament, No. 2 East Lake and No. 3 PHU were destined to collide at this early stage.
“That final four could potentially be a state final four,” East Lake coach Sergei Stopek said. “So to go into that and win your district, you’re really accomplishing something.”
One of Stopek’s priorities leading up to Thursday’s PHU match, he said, will be making sure his players grasp the game’s implications rather than being consumed by thoughts of the opponent.
“I think that’s the most important thing to get through to the kids,” he said. “To understand the importance of that is critical.”
Once Thursday night’s match gets under way, though, intensity should not be an issue for either bench.
The Eagles grabbed a little boost of confidence the last time these two met in December. All East Lake needed to do was tie to secure the league No. 2 seed and it did just that with a 1-1 draw.
“That helped out a lot, I think,” St. George said of last month’s result, “especially because everyone was back and now we’re meshing and getting used to playing with each other.”
The teams’ only other head-to-head came in the final of PHU’s annual Hurricane Watch Tournament at the beginning of the season, won 2-0 by the ’Canes.
It’s the Dec. 20 draw that likely provides the most insight into how Thursday’s elimination match will play out. Similar to East Lake, PHU has had to play through a number of injury issues and club-soccer scheduling conflicts, meaning both are getting as close to full-strength as they’ve been all year at the same time.
The last time it was win-or-go-home time for these two proud programs was last January 26 at East Lake in the Class 5A region semifinals. The Eagles edged PHU 2-1 on its run to the state semis in front of an impressive crowd that created an even more impressive atmosphere.
Considering the stakes, Thursday night expects to be quite similar.
“It’s a classic matchup but it’s a district semifinal game, so that’s unfortunate,” Stopek said. “But now it just makes it more intense and more meaningful.”
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