By Kyle LoJacono
The roles were reversed when cross-town rivals Sunlake and Land O’ Lakes faced off Jan. 10.
The top seed in the Class 3A-District 7 boys soccer tournament was on the line, but for the first time it was the Seahawks (22-0, 8-0) in the driver seat. They rose to the challenge with a come-from-behind victory 2-1 against the Gators (9-4, 6-2) to stay perfect on the season.
Sunlake only needed a tie to secure the No. 1 district seed, but the host Seahawks wanted nothing to do with a draw.
“I told the guys going into the game, ‘I know most of you haven’t been here the last four years, but the last three years we’ve been the ones who’ve had nothing to lose,’” said Sunlake senior forward Connor Gilboy. “I told these guys, ‘This time we have everything to lose.’ We have perfect season, national ranking, place in districts and pride. … A tie, in our opinion, screws up the undefeated season.”
The Seahawks came out of the gate fast, peppering Land O’ Lakes goalkeeper Tommy Koen with two shots in the first two minutes.
The Gators withstood the initial onslaught and capitalized on their first shot on goal in the eighth minute when Stephen Garcia buried home a deflection off a corner kick by Mike Moran, the first time Sunlake has trailed all season.
The Seahawks got back on the attack with five shots on goal in the final 32 minutes of the half.
Garcia, a senior defender, kept Land O’ Lakes on top by blocking a shot in the 34th minute to preserve the lead, but only for three minutes.
Sunlake got on the board when junior midfielder Austin Goble fed a pass to Gilboy along the right sideline. He pushed the ball forward, lined up his shot and fired a rocket past Koen from 30 yards out.
“That’s one of those shots that you take if you have it,” Gilboy said. “You know it’s going to change the game if it goes in.”
Seahawks coach Sam Koleduk said the tying tally just before halftime was critical.
“I told them to try and keep their composure, and for the most part we did,” Koleduk said. “We gave up the loose ball goal to them. It was a nice shot, but even up until then I think we were clearly dominating the play. I think Gilboy’s goal right before half was huge. Second half would have been much more difficult being down.”
The Gators picked up their play in the second half, forcing five corner kicks while limiting Sunlake’s chances offensively until Gilboy again rose up for his squad with a shot from outside and right of the box.
The attempt was partially deflected by Garcia into the net to put the home team ahead 2-1 in the 67th minute. Gilboy was awarded the goal by the officials, giving him 100 for his career.
“I don’t want to say we’re desperate, but we just needed something,” Gilboy said. “Even if it’s not right on target we needed something, so it was absolutely a shot.”
The Seahawks had several chances to add to the lead, including a header by Chris Wilkerson in the 72nd minute that sailed just over the cross bar. Koleduk said he would have liked them to have converted more opportunities, but was happy with the effort.
“I thought we were clearly the better team, but we didn’t put our easy chances in,” Koleduk said. “We missed two or three chances in the second half that should have been goals, but they’re tough. They battle hard and keep their shape well. I thought our attitude was good. I thought we tried hard and played very aggressive. … I think we deserved to win overall, but I think it was a really good game.”
Land O’ Lakes assistant Mike Pearson, who was coaching for his son Mark because of a two-game suspension after receiving a double yellow card the night before against Anclote, said the late goal stung because of how they evened up the play after halftime.
“We controlled a lot of the game in the second half,” Mike said. “We were a little bit guilty of leaving too much room in the first half in the midfield, which gave them the opportunity to run at us. … I’m disappointed because I don’t think we deserved to lose this game. It’s disappointing, but I’m encouraged because we’re starting to play more to our potential, so hopefully we get a chance to have another go at these guys.”
The Gators still earned the No. 2 seed in 3A-7 and will play tournament host Pasco in the semifinals, while Sunlake will match up with the winner of the contest between Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills.
The Seahawks won their first district title last year by defeating Land O’ Lakes in the finals, ending the Gators’ seven-year string of league crowns. Gilboy said it won’t be easy to go two in a row but said they have the ability make it happen.
“We have to keep our cool,” Gilboy said. “It’s not a fluke. It’s not a fluke, and everyone has to understand that.”
Sunlake and Land O’ Lakes played at Hudson and at Gulf Jan. 14, respectively, but results were not available by press time. The Seahawks host Wiregrass Ranch Jan. 16 at 7 p.m., the same day the Gators host River Ridge at 7:30 p.m.