Sunday, Dec 21, 2014

Dragons whip Wildcats

BY Brandon Howard
Highlands Today

Published:

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MULBERRY - McKeel coach Jacob Sweeny told his Wildcats at halftime: "A 2-0 lead is the most dangerous lead in soccer."

If only they'd heeded his advice.

Lake Placid stormed back from a two-goal deficit to force double overtime before eventually winning 4-2 on penalty kicks to capture the Class 2A-District 10 soccer championship Friday night at a frigid Phosphate Bowl.

"I've actually been in that situation two times," said Green Dragons coach John Merlo. "I've even gotten to penalty kicks and lost both times. So in the huddle I told the girls to just go out there and play your guts out. I promised them that it would all be worth it. And it was."

In handing McKeel its first district loss of the season, this group of Dragons secured their first district championship.

Merlo previously won the title when he took over the program five years ago.

And for senior co-captains Stephanie Bennett and Hannah Waller, ending their high school careers as champions was unreal.

"It means the world," Bennett said. "I can't even fathom what happened tonight. I wanted this all four years - all my life really - and it's such a blessing to have won this. I'm so grateful to God."

Meanwhile, Waller, who played the match while battling the flu, trudged on despite little time to rest. She played nearly all 80 minutes of regulation before giving one final gasp of effort again in overtime.

"It was hard, but so worth it," Waller said. "It's the best feeling in the world."

The other co-captain, Rosa Ramirez, is only a junior, but she seemed to be the most stoic of the trio.

"This means a lot," she said. "It was a really intense game, and we worked hard for the win. We really wanted it."

The victory secured a home match for Lake Placid in the Class 2A regional quarterfinals. The Dragons will play Tampa's Academy of the Holy Names Thursday at 7 p.m.

But at the outset of Friday's match, it looked as if McKeel (17-7-1, 7-1-1) would overwhelm Lake Placid (13-4-3, 6-1-3).

The Wildcats got off to a hot start offensively, peppering Dragons goalkeeper Tamija Douglas with a flurry of shots before finally breaking through at the 33rd minute. Mary Grace Bates gave the Dragons a handful of scoring opportunities, but her shots were always just wide of the goal. And while Douglas made a number of impressive saves to deter McKeel, the Wildcats booted in their second goal of the match just before halftime.

But even down two scores at the break, Merlo wasn't worried.

"I told them, you're better than that," he said. "I knew we could play with McKeel and that they would start to make mistakes. We just had to believe it."

Merlo also implemented a stricter defensive strategy in the second half.

"McKeel was really hurting us on the corner kicks," Merlo said. "That's really the only danger we got in. So after seeing how they scored that second goal, I told them to just pick a girl and stay with her - that's who you've got. And it just worked out from there."

In the second half, the Dragons found their groove offensively. Bates, who has been deadly all season in the open field, finally got the one-on-one breakaway she was looking for. Just after the midway point of the second half, she split two Wildcats defenders with some fancy dribbling before softly sailing the ball over the outstretched hands of McKeel's goalie.

The Dragons suddenly intensified offensive pressure kept the Wildcats from regrouping on defense, and at the 72nd mark, Eden Taylor knocked in an assist from Waller to tie the game.

"Douglas was so vital for us in that second half," Merlo said. "She made some really great saves."

Both overtime periods were a war of attrition. The shots on goal were easily outnumbered by the litany of collisions between the two rivals. Neither team was willing to admit defeat without inflicting a little pain.

Following the scoreless extra periods, the stage was set for a dramatic finish by penalty kicks.

Lake Placid's Bennett was first, and her shot was just wide to the left of the goal. But Douglas was there to rescue the Dragons with an emphatic stop of McKeel's first penalty kick.

Ramirez booted in a goal to give the Dragons a lead, and Douglas rose to the challenge again, stuffing another Wildcats shot.

Up 1-0, Jasmine Molina calmly sent a shot into the right corner of the net. McKeel answered by finally sneaking a ball past Douglas.

Waller got her chance next, zipping the ball into the goal to give the Dragons a 3-1 advantage. But Douglas slipped on the following shot and McKeel made it 3-2.

With the district title resting on Jenna Blount's foot, she coolly walked up to the ball, and blasted it into the back of the net. The Dragon fans in attendance erupted.

"We really played our hearts out tonight," Merlo said. "And I can't really put it all on one girl. We just turned it around and played as a team and we won. I couldn't be happier."

bhoward@highlandstoday.com

863-386-5841

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