Over the last two weeks, Nature Coast Technical boys soccer team has personified the word "underdog."
The up-and-down Sharks entered the inaugural Hernando County Coaches Cup on Jan. 16 at Tom Fisher Stadium against Hernando at 9-11 overall.
Two hours later, NCT felt a bit better behind a hard-fought 3-1 victory.
In last week's nine-team Class 3A, District 7 Tournament at the Hornets' Nest at Weeki Wachee, the Sharks edged fifth-seeded Fivay in the quarterfinals via double overtime, 1-0.
In the semifinals, NCT snapped an 11-year bagel against archrival Springstead, eliminating the top-seeded Eagles, 2-1.
Last Friday, second-seeded Citrus claimed its fourth district crown and second in back-to-back winters by trimming NCT in the 3A-7 final, 5-2.
NCT stands 12-12, but will be fighting for it playoff life at 7 p.m. Thursday in Pasco County, facing defending 3A-8 champ Sunlake (26-1-1) in a 3A-Region II quarterfinal.
In Season 7 of Sunlake futbol, the Seahawks have made their fourth straight regional tournament. After a district runner-up trophy 2011, SHS has reeled off back-to-back-to-back district titles.
The East Pasco County booters are 6-3 lifetime in regional/state finals action.
By comparison, NCT is making its second regional appearance.
In 2005, the 1-19-2 Sharks traveled to Ocala-West Port and were eliminated in the 3A-II quarterfinals, 5-0.
The 'Hawks are the defending Region II champions. In last winter's first state finals appearance, Sunlake fell at the hands of Ponte Vedra, 2-1.
Ponte Vedra was beaten by Plantation-American Heritage for the 3A state crown, 2-0.
SHS opened the season at 17-0-1 (the only blemish was a 2-2 tie versus Wiregrass Ranch), before Mitchell applied a 5-0 spanking.
Since that Jan. 4 setback, the Seahawks have captured nine matches in a row - outscoring their foes by 43 goals, 48-5.
Thursday night serves as the Seahawks' 13th meeting against NCT.
SHS holds a commanding 10-2 edge - winners of the last five clashes - including Jan. 15's 4-1 verdict at home.
Interestingly, both of the Sharks' previous series wins over SHS have come at Land O' Lakes. On Jan. 7, 2009, NCT prevailed 3-2.
But the biggest shocker was when sixth-seeded NCT stunned third-seeded Sunlake in district tournament action on Jan. 26, 2010, 3-1.
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The Seahawks arrive with a county-best 155 goals scored - averaging a ridiculous 5.54 goals per game.
Far from one-dimensional, 15 different players have tallied at least one goal while 13 players have chipped in at least one assist.
SHS is paced by sophomore forward Remi Pimm (55 goals, 36 assists, 146 points) and junior Connor Spencer (23 goals, 37 assists, 83 points).
That dynamic duo is complemented by juniors Cobi Shermo (21 goals, 15 assists) and Chris Wilkinson (16 goals, 21 assists).
"They're (Sunlake) loaded with talent, particularly up top with two great forwards in Connor and Remi," noted NCT's fifth-year skipper Ian Wald, who arrives 44-59-9 lifetime, including 1-7-0 versus SHS. "Those two are supported real well by the rest of the team."
Referring NCT's last meeting against Sunlake, "I was impressed with how they get the ball to Remi's feet so fast," pointed out Wald. "He's fast and has loads of talent. There's a reason why he's on the Youth 17 National team (based out of the IMG Academy in Sarasota). With those two forwards they beat everybody."
Wald says the Seahawks literally step on the gas pedal at any time. More importantly, that the 'Hawks have the ability to score goals in bunches.
"We score in the 50th minute to go ahead, 1-0," recalled Wald of the last match. "Then over the next three minutes they score three goals.
"Last year at our house, we score in the 60th minute to lead 1-0, then they score six goals within the next 10 minutes to win, 6-1," lamented Wald. "After they score a goal, it's like the floodgates open. Defensively, it's a scary proposition because of the all the pressure they apply."
The Seahawks' defense has permitted 16 goals. Sophomore goalkeeper Danny Hrenko has been credited with 19 shutouts.
"Their defense looks better than it is," insisted Wald. "They have a stellar keeper (Hrenko), but their offense is so high-powered, their defense gets overlooked. With (Sunlake coach) Sam (Koleduk), even when he was at Gulf, he had high-powered offenses and the defense kind of fell into place - same at Sunlake."
"We're a close team," described Koleduk, who arrives 210-79-27 lifetime with a combined four district titles and three runner-up trophies at Gulf and Sunlake. "We're fortunate that our kids play at a high club level.
"I'd say we're an attacking team on defense," he added. "Our sweeper (senior Austin Goble) is a natural midfielder, but he's sacrificed for this team. He might be the best player in Florida.
"A lot of people will look at Remi and Connor, but my stopper (senior Aaron Aucoin) has 12 goals. Our offense begins with our defense and he's one of the reasons," insisted Koleduk. "We're got a little forward, Shermo, who is like a workhorse."
On Pimm, "He's the most unselfish players I've ever coached," detailed Koleduk.
On the Seahawks' 22-man roster, four seniors start. Koleduk isn't fretting; his JV team finished a county-best 14-0, permitting four goals.
"I can tell you we're not overlooking Nature Coast," explained Koleduk. "They work extremely hard. They've got a great work ethic so we can't afford to be complacent. We've been fortunate that our kids understand they have to raise their game and just take it one match at a time.
"Trust me we know how physical Nature Coast is. We're aware of (NCT's Morgan) Vraspir (team-leading eight goals), some of our kids have played against him at the club level," emphasized Koleduk. "We can't worry about other teams. If we play our game, other teams will adjust. We're fortunate that we're healthy and ready to go."
Coach Wald insists that he hasn't had to sell this match.
"We know what we're getting in to," he said. "Sunlake is the heavy favorite - they're as good as it gets.
"We're going to fight like hell and who knows what can happen in any one game?" he said. "Nobody's giving us a chance, but we're not going down without a fight."
At a Glance
What - Class 3A, Region II Boys Soccer Quarterfinal.
Who - Sunlake Seahawks (24-6-1, 3A-8 champions) vs. Nature Coast Technical Sharks (12-12-0, 3A-7 runners-up).
Where - Seahawks Stadium, 3023 Sunlake Blvd., Land O' Lakes.
When - Thursday at 7 p.m.
At Stake - Quarterfinal winner will play Feb. 4, versus the survivor of Land O' Lakes/ Citrus.
By the numbers: NCT vs. Sunlake
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
HEAD COACHES - NCT: Ian Wald, 5th Year, 44-59-9; Sunlake: Sam Koleduk, 7th Year, 120-39-11; 13th Year: 210-79-27 lifetime.
REGIONAL/STATE FINALS RECORDS - NCT: 2nd regional appearance, 0-1-0 lifetime; Sunlake: 4th regional appearance, 6-3-0.
DISTRICT CHAMPIONSHIPS - NCT: 0; Sunlake: 3.
DISTRICT RUNNERS-UP - NCT: 2; Sunlake: 1.
REGIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS - NCT: 0; Sunlake: 1.
STATE APPEARANCES - NCT: 0; Sunlake: 1 (Class 3A in 2013).
STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS - NCT: 0; Sunlake: 0.
SERIES W-L-T RECORD - Sunlake leads 10-2-0.