One of the original teams to begin girls soccer on the North Suncoast, perennial power Land O' Lakes, tangles with Nature Coast Technical Tuesday night at Brooksville's Shark Tank Stadium for the right to advance in Class 3A, Region II.
Tuesday's winner will face the survivor of Palm Coast-Matanzas/Leesburg in the 3A-II final on Jan. 31.
The Lady Gators debuted at the prep varsity level behind Vicky King in 1987-88. King has taught physical education and Exceptional Student Education at Land O' Lakes for 28 years.
King's resume on the pitch is top-shelf.
In her 27th season, King recently captured her 400th career win. She arrives in Hernando County Tuesday night with a North Suncoast-best 410-179-52 won-lost-tied career mark.
Across 641 career matches, King's squads have captured 10 district championships (1993, '94, '96, '98, 2001, '02, '03, '12, '13, '14) and 10 district runner-up trophies (1995, '97, 2000, '04, '05, '06, '07, '08, '09, '10).
Additionally, Land O' Lakes has captured two regional titles (2003, '04) and is the only North Suncoast female soccer team to have raised a state championship banner (Class 3A in 2003).
Since 1993, Land O' Lakes has reached the regional playoffs 19 times. The East Pasco county club arrives 18-17 in regional and state finals action.
Interestingly, since 1999 the Lady Gators have reached the regional level every year except in 2011.
On Jan. 19, 2011 at "The Swamp" in the 4A-District 8 quarterfinals, NCT ousted Land O' Lakes, 2-1 (4-2 in penalty kicks).
According to Coach King, three of her team's current seven seniors were freshmen on that team.
The Lady Gators, who start two seniors, hold a slim 2-1-2 series edge against the Lady Sharks. The two teams haven't met since 2011.
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The Lady Gators enter Hernando County with 22 on their roster - the state limit. They had to trim a player to do that.
King said of this year's squad, "From player 1-23, this is the deepest team I've ever had. Talent-wise this team is better than the 2003 team."
Despite arriving 24-1, the Lday Gators did not compete in any holiday tournaments against stiffer competition.
In fact, the Lady Gators' strength of schedule could be considered suspect. They've played one team outside of Pasco County: Tampa Catholic.
"We've sought out and played tougher teams in the past," noted King. "But because we had to play our district opponents twice plus we played every team in the conference, we didn't have room to add any additional matches. Something has to give in the future - either at the district level or conference."
NCT head coach Lisa Masserio somewhat downplays the schedule issue.
"There's strength within that county with 13 schools," she said. "Mitchell is no slouch, we all know that. And Hudson, Fivay and Wiregrass are all tough. I think our schedule benefitted us because the top four teams were close matchups. Those tough games added an element of mental toughness.
"To me, our girls are battle-tested. Playing all those tough teams in our district has benefitted us."
After the Lady Gators reeled off 18 straight victories to open the season, Pasco County's defending Sunshine Athletic Conference champions from Mitchell defeated Land O' Lakes on Jan. 2, 2-0.
Since that setback, Land O' Lakes has pieced together six straight victories - all shutouts.
Offensively, the Lady Gators have plenty of weapons, totaling a staggering 145 goals this winter - averaging a startling 5.8 goals per game.
Amazingly, 18 players have scored at least one goal while 19 players have chipped in at least one assist.
Unlike one-dimensional Hudson's approach with supreme senior striker Dominique Cirnigliaro (Pasco County-high 56 goals scored), the Lady Gators have several layers of scorers.
"In years past we leaned on (Brooke) Silvest and (Catherine) Gray to score goals," noted King, "Now they can shoot, but they do a better job for us distributing the ball (behind a combined 37 assists)."
Senior forward Victoria Cannata arrives with a team-best 26 goals and 13 assists while freshman striker Samantha Epifanio has collected 21 goals and seven assists.
On Cannata, "She's a solid overall player," insisted King. "She loves to play the game. The tougher the competition, the higher she raises her game, especially going one versus one."
Epifanio, the daughter of former Zephyrhills wrestling coach Kevin Epifanio, was shaken up in last Thursday's 2-0 win versus Hudson and is questionable.
King is "unsure at this point if she'll play. If she can't, we'll rotate a couple of others up top."
Other weapons in the arsenal feature Silvest with 19 goals and a team-best 19 assists, sophomore Savanna Ronk (12 goals) and frosh Haley Eckel (11 goals), and junior Makenzie Fish (10 goals).
"This is the first time in a long time that we've got some legit goal-scorers," described Coach King. "We're multi-dimensional; we're fortunate that our offense doesn't revolve around one kid.
"We didn't expect this (having so many weapons), but we're prepared to use what we've got," she added. "This group plays one match at a time. They're very humble and they're taught to respect the game, each other and to respect their opponents."
Defensively, Land O' Lakes has restricted the opposition to 13 goals.
Junior goalkeeper Lauren Arrabito has been credited with 14 shutouts in 25 games. Her backup is freshman Hannah Young.
"Arrabito is tenacious on the field even if she's 5-foot-5," King said. "She knows what she's doing. She's only played keeper for three years, but she's put in the time to be a better player. She did a tremendous job of keeping us in the game during the first meeting this year against Sunlake.
"Her backup, Young, might be raw, but I wouldn't hesitate in putting her in there."
Due to injuries, King has rotated five defenders across the perimeter in front of Arrabito with tremendous success.
When sophomore defender Lacy Nasello injured her patella and missed time, King utilized Silvest and sophomore Maci Galan as center backs while using sophomores Caitlin Matthews and Sotiria Tsilonis as outside backs.
On King's assessment of NCT, she said, "They're playing real well right now. We tried scheduling a match with them, but it fell through. They're aggressive and win a lot 50/50 balls."
On how King sold this match, "It could be one-and-done," stressed King. "I told the girls Monday's practice could be our last. The kids know the further we go, the grumpier I get. I'll snap at them for the little things, because so much is at stake.
"This group has worked really hard to get where we're at," she added. "We're in it to win it."
Masserio likens Tuesday's match to preparing mentally for the 3A-7 semis.
"The key for us is to prepare like we did for the district semifinal and final," Masserio said. "Our girls really wanted it. We played to our strengths in both matches. I have confidence with these girls that we can come together as one team.
"This team wants to prove that last year's run (to the regional finals) was no fluke," she added. "We graduated some strength in scoring, but this team has developed its own identity. With Land O' Lakes coming in there's a sense of excitement in the air. If we work together, we'll get the job done."
At a Glance
What - Class 3A, Region II Girls Soccer Semifinal.
Who - Land O' Lakes Lady Gators (24-1-0, 3A-8 champions) vs. Nature Coast Technical Lady Sharks (20-2-2, 3A-7 champions).
Where - NCT's Shark Tank Stadium.
When - Tuesday at 7 p.m.
At Stake - Semifinal winner will travel Friday for the 3A-II championship versus the survivor of Leesburg/Palm Coast-Matanzas.
By the numbers: Land O' Lakes vs. NCT
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
HEAD COACHES - Land O' Lakes: Vicky King, 27th season, 410-179-52; NCT: Lisa Masserio, 5th Year, 70-25-11.
POST-SEASON RECORDS - Land O' Lakes: 19th regional appearance, 18-17-0 lifetime; NCT: 3rd regional appearance, 4-2-0 lifetime.
DISTRICT CHAMIONPSHIPS - Land O' Lakes: 10; NCT: 2.
DISTRICT RUNNERS-UP - Land O' Lakes: 10; NCT: 1.
REGIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS - Land O' Lakes: 2; NCT: 0.
STATE APPEARANCES - Land O' Lakes: 2; NCT: 0.
STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS - Land O' Lakes: 1 (Class 3A in 2003); NCT: 0.
SERIES W-L-T RECORD - Land O' Lakes leads 2-1-2