SPRING HILL - For the second time in three seasons, the Nature Coast Technical Lady Sharks captured the Hernando County championship by sweeping Monday night's regular-season series against archrival Springstead, 4-3.
The Lady Sharks (11-2-1 Class 3A, District 7, 7-0-0 county, 12-2-1 overall) utilized the same blueprint of success from the first meeting - a suffocating second-half defense that blanketed the short-handed Lady Eagles.
"My hat goes off to Nature Coast," explained Springstead's third-year skipper Scott Wern. "They trailed most of the game, but never gave up. We did the best with what we've got."
On the game's difference, "They played higher pressure defense in the second half," noted Wern. "We put some great goals together (in the first half), but we're inexperienced in the box with our defense. We've scored goals all season long, but we've been plagued by giving up too many easy goals.
"To me, the desire to win in both meetings was not there."
On Nov. 18's one-sided 7-2 triumph at the Shark Tank, the Eagles' lost their fourth starter of the season: forward Salina Bravo - to a broken tibia.
The trainer's table has been crowded all season for the Mariner Boulevard program.
SHS opened the season without three starters - 2013 Hernando Today Player of the Samantha Betters, Alexis Cubillo and Alex Piesek - all due to preseason anterior cruciate ligament injuries.
Last week, four-year letterman and starting midfielder, senior Haleigh McDuff, aggravated a hamstring injury. She tried play in Friday's 2-0 loss to Hudson, but returned to the bench moments into the match.
With five starters out, it appeared the Spring Hill crew would be easy pickings in the key 3A,-7 rematch at Booster Stadium.
It proved anything but.
Behind a patch-work lineup, Springstead (10-3-2 3A-7, 6-2-0 county; 11-3-2 overall) outshot the visiting Sharks, 7-5, to build a 3-1 halftime cushion.
At 9:31, frosh Kimberly Gibson's perfect peg led to an easy tapper by the county's leading scorer, senior and two-time All-County striker Nicole Morolla, past goalie Samantha Oliveira.
Gibson's second assist led to Morolla's 24th goal of the season, 1-0.
Less than 2½ minutes later, NCT captain and senior Haley Lalande took advantage of a brilliant special team's peg to earn the equalizer.
Senior Kendal Worden's corner kick was flicked into the net by Lalande for her 16th goal of the season, 1-1.
At 29:00 minutes, Lady Eagle sophomore Madison Neesham was in the right place at the right time.
A Lady Eagle shot caromed off Oliveira's hands - right to Neesham, who tucked away her third goal of the season, 2-1.
Less than a minute later, another Lady Shark breakdown occurred.
SHS junior All-County performer Erin Blackwell's precise corner kick was threaded to junior Ashley Healy, who scored her first-ever varsity goal.
With four minutes remaining in the first half, NCT sliced the deficit in half as Chelsea Reid's fifth assist of the season led directly to Jayna Tyner's 12th goal of the season.
Tyner, a freshman, was the hero in the team's first meeting behind her first-ever varsity hat trick.
The hosts' lead lasted 4:36 into the second half.
Lalande, a two-time All-County selection, picked a Lady Eagle defender's pocket and rifled a laser just inside the near post that goalie Jenna Booth had absolutely no chance to react on, 3-3.
At 65:00 Lalande ripped a point-blank shot that clanked off the goal post. Six inches lower and she would have her third goal of the night.
Instead with 13 minutes remaining in the game, Worden threaded the needle with her seventh assist of the season leading to senior Lisa Soehngen's seventh goal of the year.
As the Lady Sharks attempted seven second-half shots, NCT's defense stood tall not permitting one Lady Eagle shot on goal against Oliveira.
From the jubilant visitors' sideline, Lalande pointed out the Lady Sharks' pattern of slow starts.
"Tonight it took us a little bit to connect things," admitted the 17-year-old Lalande. "Sometimes instead of playing to win, we come out not wanting to lose."
On Nature Coast head coach Lisa Masserio's half-time adjustments, "It's no secret, coach got us more into it," described Lalande. "Lisa's (Soehngen) last goal was big. Winning the county tastes like eating a delicacy; it's pretty sweet."
Worden recalled her pinpoint winning pass.
"At the time I was looking for anybody in the box," recalled the 17-year-old Worden. "But Lisa's goal was amazing. I'm not going to say we had doubts (down 3-1), but coach got us mentally back into the game.
"We've had games where our focus wasn't there."
"Kendal and I have played together for so long, we always seem to find each other," said the 17-year-old Soehngen. "Even when we were down, I had no doubts we could come back. Tonight, it had to be done. In the second half we did a better job of doing what we needed to do to win."
On the prospect of facing district-leading Fivay on Tuesday, "We've got to come out harder than we did tonight," she replied.
Masserio, the county's defending Coach of the Year, praised her troops.
"It was a very stressful and frustrating first half. It was very similar to how we played them at home. Springstead scored three great goals on us," detailed Masserio. "We knew we had to put something together. I kind of asked the girls at halftime 'What are we doing here?'
"I thought we pressured the ball much better in the second half. That third goal built even more confidence," she added.
As far as clinching the Lady Sharks' third county championship, "It's great," she said. "This was one of our goals coming in. We came really close last year, but lost to Springstead - that's what was at stake again tonight.
"Last year I felt like we didn't close the deal (against Springstead). Tonight we did with basically an entirely new squad," Masserio said. "Now, tomorrow we have to put it all together against another great team (Fivay). We have to prove what we're all about."
Nature Coast 4, Springstead 3
NCT 2 2 --4
SPG 3 0 -- 3
Goals - NCT: Lalande (2), Tyner, Soehngen; SPG: Morolla, Neesham, Healy.
Assists - NCT: Word (2), Reid; SPG: Gibson, Blackwell.
Shots on goal - NCT: 12; SPG: 7.
Saves - NCT: Oliveira (2); SPG: Booth (2).
Yellow cards - NCT: Witherell, Worden (unsporting conduct).
Blue cards - none. Red cards - none.
Records - Nature Coast Technical (11-2-1 3A-7, 7-0-0 county, 12-2-1 overall),
Springstead (10-3-2 3A-7, 6-2-0 county; 11-3-2 overall).