AUBURNDALE - Sebring overcame gusty winds, a mini-downpour, and a chippy Lake Wales squad Tuesday night to advance to the championship game in the boys soccer Class 3A-District 11 Tournament. The Blue Streaks knocked off the Highlanders in the semifinals by a score of 2-0 at the Lake Myrtle Sports Complex in Auburndale, securing a berth in the state playoff regional quarterfinals.
"The pace tonight was really high," said Blue Streaks coach Keith Bowyer. "I thought Lake Wales played a great game, but I thought we did too. And once we put that first goal in the net, they got a little bit frantic while we got more confident."
The win improved Sebring to 8-7-2 on the season overall and 6-3-1 in district play, while Lake Wales dropped to 10-9 and 7-5. The Streaks will face Auburndale in the district finals Friday night at 7 p.m. for a chance to host a home match in the regional quarterfinals.
Sebring's longtime rival, Avon Park, was also eliminated from the postseason on Tuesday. McKeel Academy (6-11-1) blanked the Red Devils (0-10-2) 3-0 in the Class 2A-District 10 tournament in Frostproof.
The Highlanders had the same trouble with Sebring that other teams have all season - they couldn't contain Larry Gilchrist. The Streaks sophomore netted both of his team's scores, giving him a total of four goals in two games.
"I think being the third seed in the tournament really helped us this year," Bowyer said. "Playing an extra game really allowed us to get in a nice offensive groove ahead of the Lake Wales game. And beating Poinciana 5-0 helped to give us a huge psychological advantage."
From the outset, though, the Streaks were trying to shrug off a bevy of missed opportunities. Austin Westergom couldn't find the net on a handful of headers. Gilchrist blasted two shots just wide of the goal. Filemon Chavez's shots always sailed above of the crossbar.
Lake Wales and Sebring split the regular-season series, with each team winning at home. Bowyer knew heading into the match that it would be a battle.
"For the first 60 or so minutes of the match, it was anybody's game," Bowyer said. "We knew we had to come play. And near the end, we played together and managed to put two away."
Taking a scoreless tie into the break, Sebring finally broke through at the 51st minute. Gilchrist broke free at midfield, effortlessly dribbling the ball between two defenders before zipping the ball into the back left corner of the net.
The Streaks weren't satisfied with a one-goal lead. They continued to push the offensive tempo, keeping Lake Wales' midfield frustrated and the Highlanders' goalkeeper on his heels.
And after giving up one goal to Gilchrist on a breakaway, Lake Wales seemingly would have learned its lesson. But he took advantage of another Highlanders defensive lapse and sprinted down field between another handful of defenders, blasting in the dagger to give Sebring a 2-0 lead at the 77th minute. Gilchrist was rewarded with a shoe-shine from his teammates afterwards.
In the final minutes, Sebring's defense thwarted a flurry of last-gasp efforts from Lake Wales. Goalie Brandon Bowyer saved two goals with diving blocks while a litany of Streaks defenders swooped in with slide tackles to knock the ball away.
"Our defense has always been one of our strong points," Bowyer said. "But now we've got to get ourselves ready to play against Auburndale."
The Streaks journey isn't over yet, though. They've got their hopes set on a district championship. But they'll have to take down the district's best team to earn it. Auburndale (16-6-1, 11-0) finished the season with a spotless district record, but the Bloodhounds weren't invincible. Sebring was the only team in 3A-11 to score on Auburndale, tallying three goals in two games.
"We'll have some light practices, but basically we're just going to be fine-tuning what we're already doing," Bowyer said. "I feel like we're running pretty strong right now on what we do well. It's a matter of coming to play. I've got a lot of respect for Auburndale and I think they have a lot of respect for us. We'll just have to be ready on Friday."