By Kyle LoJacono
Last year the Land O’ Lakes boys soccer team walked off their home field after 1-0 loss to Pasco in the regional quarterfinals as disappointed as a group of young men can be.
The scene was reversed on Feb. 10 as the Gators (23-3-2) exited Fort Walton Beach Choctawhatchee’s pitch as 2-0 winners, earning a trip to the University of South Florida (USF) for the Class 3A state finals.
“I’m so happy for these guys,” said Land O’ Lakes coach Mark Pearson.
The Gators bucked a recent trend of early playoff exits this season by claiming a regional championship with a convincing 5-0 win at Gainesville Eastside on Feb. 8 before upending Choctawhatchee (22-4).
Land O’ Lakes has outscored its opponents 16-1 since losing to cross-town rival Sunlake 3-2 in the district finals on Jan. 27.
The Seahawks snatched away the Gators’ chance of an eighth straight district title but gave Land O’ Lakes the motivation needed to claim their first regional crown since 2000 and the second state finals berth in program history.
“Losing to Sunlake on our home field woke us up because we thought we were going to just walk on the field and beat Sunlake,” said senior midfielder Nathan Dalton, who has been on the squad the last four years. “Ever since then there’s been a lot more intensity. We’ve used that as fuel, and we’ve been 10-times better.”
Senior midfielder/forward Miguel Laliberte, who transferred from Sunlake as a junior, said even the look of his teammates has changed since the district finals.
“We’ve completely changed and I can see it in everyone’s eyes the desire to win a state championship,” Laliberte said. “Every single one of us has been talking about what we need to do to do that. … We realized we have the a big target on our back because of all the wins we’ve had recently, but we can’t go in thinking we’re the No. 1 team because we haven’t done anything to prove it yet. We have to respect ever team and play our hardest in every game.”
The Gators got on the board less then 15 seconds into the state semifinals when Dalton found Josh Davis off the opening kick.
“Getting that early goal was big,” Pearson said. “I really surprised them and they were on their heels for a while. We had a couple more chances and I think we left two or three goals on the field.”
Davis added another tally in the 77th minute off a pass from Jake Frahm.
Andy Garcia scored first against Eastside (19-6-2) in the 4th minute off a Laliberte assist. Garcia hit home his second of the night 6 minutes later.
Davis added a pair of tallies of his own in the 30th and 31st minute to send Land O’ Lakes into halftime up 4-0. Pat Lawson added the last late in the contest.
The Gators’ final challenge this year comes at the 3A state championship game against Plantation American Heritage (26-1-3) at USF on Saturday, Feb. 18 at 11 a.m. Parking is $5 and admission is $9.
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