Five local boys soccer teams will begin their state title trek Monday during the nine-team Class 3A, District 7 Tournament at Weeki Wachee High.
Through 35 winters, no Hernando County team has ever reached the FHSAA's Final Four in any classification.
This 38th annual FHSAA Finals will be held nearly 140 miles from Hernando County at Melbourne's Eastern Florida State College hosted by Melbourne High and Melbourne Central Catholic beginning Feb. 12-15.
Similar to last week's girls event, nine teams make up 3A-7, including all five Hernando County programs.
The seeds feature: top-seeded Springstead (14-1-1 seed record), No. 2 Citrus (12-3-1), No. 3 Weeki Wachee (9-6-1), No. 4 Nature Coast Technical (9-7-0), No. 5 Fivay (7-7-2), No. 6 Hernando (6-10-0), No. 7 Hudson (4-9-3), No. 8 Central (4-12-0) and No. 9 seed Crystal River (3-13-0).
Monday's play-in game pits Crystal River vs. Central at 6 p.m.
Tuesday's quarterfinal schedule features: Hudson vs. Citrus at 2 p.m., Fivay vs. NCT at 4 p.m., Central/Crystal River survivor vs. Springstead at 6 p.m. and Hernando vs. Weeki Wachee at 8 p.m.
Wednesday's initial semifinal will pit the Fivay/NCT survivor against heavily favored Springstead at 6 p.m.
Should Weeki Wachee win on Tuesday, it'll play Wednesday's late semifinal game at 8 p.m. against the Citrus/Hudson survivor.
Wednesday's two semifinal winners will clash for the 3A-7 title at 7 p.m. Friday.
The 3A-7 finalists will advance to Class 3A, Region II quarterfinals set for Thursday, Jan. 30.
The county's hottest program, Springstead, is riding a season-high 11-match non-losing streak.
The Eagles (16-2-2 overall) haven't lost since visiting Citrus schooled it on Dec. 2 at Booster Stadium, 4-1.
SHS, guided by second-year mentor Warren Schmidt, arrives averaging a county-best 4.25 goals scored per game.
On the flip side, the Eagles' defense is averaging a county-best 1.2 goals allowed per game.
The weapons abound for the Mariner Boulevard booters.
Senior striker Frankie Fontan arrives with a county-best 35 goals and county-high 90 points.
Another strong candidate for Player of the Year honors is midfielder Harry Bennett. Bennett has notched 18 goals, but has dished a county-high 23 assists.
In the air, senior Tyler Wendol (16 goals) and junior Ohno Grabowski (five goals) are extremely dangerous on set pieces - especially in the air.
Defensively, senior sweeper Jubin Thomas and junior goalie Matt McDuff are two reasons why the Spring Hill crew has permitted one goal or less in 14 matches.
SHS has plenty of motivation. Many of the Eagles' 12 seniors reached the regional playoffs as freshmen and sophomores under Sal Calabrese.
Last winter, SHS was ousted in the 4A-4 semifinals by Ocala-Vanguard, 2-0.
The 2003-07 Eagles were the last Hernando County teams to reach the regional playoffs three times in four winters.
"We're going all the way through districts," proclaimed the optimist Coach Schmidt. "My concerns have been with our consistency. We play as good as any team on the North Suncoast.
"We struggled mostly because we haven't had our starting 11 on pitch for any game," added Schmidt. "Even when we won Coaches Cup Thursday we were still missing two starters (left back Brandon Bugeny and left midfielder Auston Laratta, both out due to ankle injuries). I'm expecting both back on Monday. If they can go, they'll both start on Tuesday."
On Springstead being the hunted, rather than the hunter, "We've had bull's eyes on our back all season," he remarked. "This group has responded real well to any adversity. When we went to Citrus (3-2 win on Jan. 8), the kids knew what was at stake and came in very focused and business-like."
Schmidt forecasted 3A-7 by saying, "I think it'll be us and Citrus. Nature Coast could give us a tussle, depending on which team shows up. I can tell you we're not taking anybody light beginning Tuesday night."
It's been nearly 10 years - or since 2005 - since NCT reached a district final, losing to Pasco, 5-0.
The Sharks have been as up and down as illustrated by its 10-11 won-lost slate.
To date, NCT has tallied 48 goals, but given up 47.
The Brooksville-based booters have gone 1-1 in district play across three of the past four winters.
This year's crew is led by sophomore Morgan Vraspir (7 goals, 23 points).
The team's Achilles' heel over the past few seasons - its shoddy goaltending - has vastly improved.
"This is my favorite team," pointed out fifth-year skipper Ian Wald, a standout forward and quarterback at SHS. "This team is a lot closer than the other four. I think I've done a little better job coaching this group up, too."
Shark goalies Vito Tambasco Jr. and Chandler Hatcher are averaging 75-76 percent on saves and each has notched 3½ shutouts.
"We've gone from rags to riches with our goalkeeping," stressed Wald. "We've taken a weakness and turned it into one of our strengths."
In predicting 3A-7, "Most people will look at Springstead and Citrus," insisted Wald. "But I don't think Weeki Wachee or us will go down without a fight."
On the team's current path, "When you look at our record, it's obvious we've been splitting matches," described Wald.
On the prospects of opening up against Fivay, a team NCT split with, "Fivay has got some speed," noted Wald. "We're not looking past them."
Should Springstead and NCT win on Tuesday, a third meeting between the two teams would take place. To date, SHS won 7-1 and 4-3.
"Springstead's biggest strength is their senior camaraderie," emphasized Wald. "A lot of those kids have played together for a while.
"Frankie (Fontan) provides that X-factor. Most strikers are either quick or fast," added Wald. "Frankie is rare, he's both. He does an excellent job of burying his chances. We have to limit his touches, cut down the through balls to slow him down."
Since Weeki Wachee's all-time leading scorer, senior striker Andrew Jensen (team-leading 12 goals, five assists) suffered a combined anterior cruciate ligament/meniscus tear a month ago, the Hornets have attempted to pick up the pieces.
After Jensen, junior midfielder Mike Tinari is the team's second-leading scorer with six goals.
Despite the loss of the multi-sport Jensen, WWHS has gone 1-1-1, mostly by spreading the wealth offensively between Tinari, James Howell and Michael Santana.
The Hornets (9-7-1) hope to defend their home turf against archrival Hernando, then Citrus.
Interestingly, WWHS split the regular-season series against both the Leopards and Golden Hurricanes.
"We're 100 percent healthy and ready to go," explained Weeki Wachee head coach Shane Tarbox. "There's a certain measure of comfort playing at home. We made the field a little wider this year to play to our advantage."
On the prospects of a quarterfinal clash against Hernando, "They're much improved," noted the second-year Hornet mentor. "With Hunter (Maclachlan) playing in the back, you have to work strategically to get them out of their comfort level."
On the possibility of winning the school's first-ever district title, "We started conditioning six weeks before the regular season," noted Coach Tarbox. "It's a focus of ours. There's a lot of wear and tear during the regular season. Hopefully, that conditioning pays off."
Tarbox avoided who'll win 3A-7.
"There might be a Cinderella with Hudson; we'll see," he said. "But I think it's up in the air. I know the last two times we played Springstead, we gave them a run for their money. There's really not a whole lot of separation between the top four teams."
Hernando (13-11-0) enters districts with its finest won-lost record in nearly three decades.
HHS tied Tizzie Schoelles' school-record of 13-11 from 1985-86 behind a narrow 1-0 nod Wednesday over visiting Zephyrhills.
Despite connecting on more goals (56) than any previous HHS squad except for the Jim Jensen/Tim Woodford-paced crew from 1985-86, the Purple and Gold aren't hitting on all cylinders, dropping three of its last four.
The main concern is a familiar theme that fifth-year skipper Andy Suarez brought to light prior to the season - finishing.
"Lately, we haven't been finishing our opportunities," admitted Suarez. "It's what I feared the most."
On predicting 3A-7, Suarez said, "I'd put money on Springstead, not so much because of their talent, but the majority of their kids play at the competitive level. And a lot of them have played together for years."
For a program that has reached one district final over the past 35 winters (2003-04), health is a concern as well.
Right midfielder Bradley Platt recently rolled his ankle and right back Marcus Waddy is nursing the dreaded high ankle sprain. Though Waddy played Thursday night against Nature Coast in the Hernando County Coaches Cup, he's still not at 100 percent.
According to Suarez, Harrison Hall has filled in nicely at outside midfield and Clay Everett has also provided a spark.
On the prospects of beating WWHS on their pitch, "The key will be discipline," insisted Suarez. "Defensively, we can bite at the ball. On the last quarter of the field, we have to prevent that penetration."
HHS senior Habib Garcia ranks third in the local circuit in scoring with a team-best 27 goals and 15 assists for 69 points.
For eighth-seeded Central, the Bears (6-15-0) will need to win four matches in five nights to earn their third district championship in 26 years.
Fortunately for the Bears, they have solved Crystal River twice this season, 2-0 and 3-1.
Unless the Bears topple the Pirates, they'll drop their third straight one-and-done game in the playoffs.
With a victory on Monday, CHS faces well-rested Springstead. Since defeating the Eagles for the district title three winters ago at Booster Stadium in overtime, 2-1, the Bears have dropped the next four meetings to SHS - three via shutout.
The Bears' first-year mentor Derrick Smith did not return a call for this story.
At a Glance
What - Class 3A, District 7 Boys Soccer Tournament.
Who - Nine teams event featuring: top-seeded Springstead (14-1-1 seed record), No. 2 Citrus (12-3-1), No. 3 Weeki Wachee (9-6-1), No. 4 Nature Coast Technical (9-7-0), No. 5 Fivay (7-7-2), No. 6 Hernando (6-10-0), No. 7 Hudson (4-9-3), No. 8 Central (4-12-0) and No. 9 Crystal River (3-13-0).
Where - Weeki Wachee High
When - Monday through Friday at Weeki Wachee Stadium. Semifinals set for 6 and 8 p.m. on Wednesday. Finals set for 7 p.m. Friday.
At Stake - Top two teams advance to the 3A-Region II quarterfinals on Jan. 30.