Hernando County's five girls soccer teams will initiate their state title quests at the district level beginning Monday at Nature Coast Technical's Shark Tank Stadium.
Through 24 seasons of winter action, no Hernando County team has ever reached the sport's Final Four in any classification.
The 33rd annual FHSAA Finals will be held nearly 140 miles from Hernando County again at Eastern Florida State College, hosted by Melbourne High and Melbourne Central Catholic High, beginning Feb. 5-8.
Nine teams make up Class 3A, District 7, including all five Hernando County programs.
The 3A-7 seeds feature: top-seeded Hudson (13-2-1 seed record), No. 2 Nature Coast (13-2-1/lost tiebreaker), No. 3 Fivay (12-2-2), No. 4 Springstead (10-4-2), No. 5 Citrus (8-6-2), No. 6 Crystal River (4-11-1), No. 7 Central (3-12-1), No. 8 Hernando (2-13-1) and No. 9 Weeki Wachee (1-14-1).
Monday's play-in game pits Weeki Wachee vs. Hernando at 6 p.m.
Tuesday's quarterfinal schedule features: Crystal River vs. Fivay at 2 p.m., Weeki Wachee/Hernando survivor vs. Hudson at 4 p.m., Citrus vs. Springstead at 6 p.m., and Central vs. NCT at 8 p.m.
Wednesday's initial semifinal figures to pit the Citrus/Springstead survivor against heavily favored Hudson at 6 p.m.
Should NCT win on Tuesday, it'll play Wednesday's late semifinal game at 8 p.m. against the Crystal River/Fivay 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 3A-Region II quarterfinals set for Jan. 23.
In Season 11, NCT will be navigating as host through unchartered waters.
The Lady Sharks, who captured the 3A-6 crown last season, have never successfully won back-to-back district championships. But there's plenty of company in chasing milestones.
Over nearly a generation of soccer, only one previous Hernando County program - the Springstead Lady Eagles guided by Polo Furlong - turned the trick in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Furthermore, only once before has a Hernando County program reached the regional level of competition in back-to-back-to-back seasons - Springstead under three different coaches in 1999-00 (Bill Horvath), 2000-01 (John Bifulco) and 2001-02 (Randy Strat).
The Lady Sharks (16-2-2) aren't shoe-ins to defend.
NCT dropped regular-season matches to both Fivay and Hudson and trailed fourth-seeded Springstead twice at the intermission.
Despite her team going 7-0-1 over its past eight matches, the county's defending Coach of the Year, Lisa Masserio, enters quietly optimistic.
"Last year, we had more competitive non-league games which helped prepare us," recalled Masserio. "We've had more ups and downs this year. To me, any of the top four teams in the district could win this."
On the Lady Sharks' plight, "It's pretty simple for our kids, who wants to keep playing? And can we replace the fire that our kids carried last year?" said Masserio, who in her fifth year at the helm is 65-25-11.
NCT opens Tuesday evening against archrival Central. Interestingly, the Lady Bears won the first five meetings in this series by a combined 32-7.
Since that point, it's been all Lady Sharks. They have dominated capturing 16 of the next 17 encounters.
Over the last 8½ seasons, NCT has reeled off 11 straight victories against the Lady Bears - featuring 10 shutouts. During this recent stretch, NCT has outscored CHS by 54 goals, 58-4.
Following that pattern, NCT defeated CHS this winter, 7-0 and 2-0.
This marks the first time these two teams have ever met in the postseason.
"After that second win over Central, there was no celebrating," pointed out Coach Masserio, as the Lady Sharks had clinched the Hernando County championship earlier in the week by rallying past Springstead, 4-3.
"They (Central) held us to two goals. They deserve credit. They changed their keeper and their defense," noted Masserio. "I can't take anything away from them, but I can tell you nobody on our side was happy."
Superior goalkeeping could be the undermining difference in the 3A-7 Tourney.
"Hudson, Fivay and us all have great goalkeepers," identified Masserio. "In the playoffs, you have to finish whatever chances you get. Against the better teams, you won't get many chances."
The numbers appear stacked against Central. Unlike NCT, the Lady Bears arrive with no momentum, having lost their last four matches.
CHS has reached one district final (2004-05 under Hank Deslaurier) since 1998's district title at Zephyrhills.
Moreover, the Brooksville booters have dropped six straight district matches.
The Lady Bears (3-12-2), who totaled a school-record low 10 goals last winter, have tallied 10 goals again this season.
After allowing 80 goals last winter - the most since permitting 85 in 1999-00 - CHS has tightened up allowing 62.
The Lady Bears' Achilles' heel has been their lack of offensive production - to that end; they've been blanked 12 times this season.
Despite their ills, second-year CHS skipper Ken Brening looks positively at his half-filled glass.
"We only played with 11 kids in the last match against Nature Coast," pointed out Brening, who is 4-24-3 lifetime. "The difference was definitely our defense. Give (assistant) Coach (Amy) Ellis credit. She's put in the time and scheme to get these kids to play defense.
"Our sweeper (Mya Robinette), left back (Gabbi Tinari), right back (Emily York) have really helped us in the back," added Brening. "The key is we can't seem to score. We don't have that one striker who can come through. We haven't figured that out yet.
"On Tuesday, we can't get away from not scoring. If our defense shows up we can hang with them (NCT)," he said. "I just don't want to see a meltdown. If we keep our marks, we've got a chance. Going against the defending champions, we've got one game to win."
While NCT garnered its third county crown, 16-time Hernando County champion Springstead has reached the FHSAA regional playoffs a county-record 10 times.
The Lady Eagles are seeking their seventh district title.
The Mariner Boulevard booters went 2-1 last winter in 4A-4 losing in the tourney final by a whisker to Lecanto, 1-0.
In the regional quarterfinals, Orange Park-Fleming Island ousted SHS, 5-0. FIHS reached the 4A Final Four before bowing out to Lakeland-George Jenkins in penalty kicks.
This might be the most battered Springstead team in 24 seasons. Four starters from last season and a call-up are all shelved.
Sophomore and defending Hernando County Player of the Year Samantha Betters, along with sophomores Alexis Cubillo and Megan Nelski and junior Alex Piesek are all sidelined due to knee injuries.
Junior Selina Bravo suffered a broken leg during the team's initial encounter this winter at NCT.
Fortunately, SHS' two-time All-County center-midfielder Haleigh McDuff, who missed the last four games due to a hamstring injury, has fully recovered.
Third-year Eagle mentor Scott Wern has called up three junior varsity players for additional depth featuring juniors Brianna Coutts, Kayla Brittain and Ashley Anthony.
Tuesday's 3A-7 quarterfinal serves as the 23rd lifetime meeting against Citrus. This series, dating back to 1997-98, is tied at 9-9-4.
Interestingly, the Lady 'Canes have eliminated SHS twice before in the postseason play: 3-1 on Jan. 26, 2005 at Lecanto in 4A-9 action and in the 2A-II quarterfinals at Citrus in 2001, 3-0.
Since SHS fell at Lecanto, the Lady Eagles are 6-0-3 against CHS over the past nine winters. That includes this winter's 1-1 draw at Booster Stadium and the 5-4 nod at the Citrus Bowl.
"Having Haleigh back is a definite plus," mentioned Wern. "She's our captain and she dictates our tempo. She complements Nicole (Morolla) really well."
On facing Citrus, "We're pretty positive at this point," noted Wern. "We're healed up and now we've got to do what we can with who we've got. On Tuesday, we have to come together. We've proven all season long we can play with the top three seeds.
"Our biggest issue has been our inconsistent play on defense," he added. "We're not taking Citrus light. We know we can play with Hudson and Fivay. And we've played well in the first half of both matches against Nature Coast.
"At this point, the emphasis is on making adjustments in the second half," he added. "Any one of the top four teams in this district can win this - it's anybody's district."
Morolla enters district play as the county's triple crown leader in goals (27), assists (17) and points (71). Despite not playing in a month, McDuff, is tied with Morolla with 14 assists.
Hernando High hasn't played in a district championship game since 2005 in William O'Lynnger's first and only season at the helm.
HHS' lone district crown arrived in 1996 under Rick Ahrens. Since 1996, the Lady Leopards (4-13-2) have reached the district final four times since, but haven't raised the tallest trophy.
On Monday night, the Purple and Gold (4-13-2) square off with the Weeki Wachee Lady Hornets (1-16-1).
HHS has captured all six previous meetings against the third-year Lady Hornets, outscoring WWHS, 20-2, featuring four shutouts.
Though Weeki Wachee (1-16-1) enters Monday's match having suffered 11 straight shutouts, third-year mentor Kim Jones remains upbeat.
"My take on the 8v9 match-up is it's anyone's game," she said. "We lost 2-0 in our last meeting with the second goal being scored in the final few minutes after pushing the defense on the offensive. We will see."
At a Glance
What - Class 3A, District 7 Girls Soccer Tournament.
Who - Nine teams in a single-elimination event featuring: top-seeded Hudson (13-2-1 seed record), No. 2 Nature Coast Technical (13-2-1/lost tiebreaker), No. 3 Fivay (12-2-2), No. 4 Springstead (10-4-2), No. 5 Citrus (8-6-2), No. 6 Crystal River (4-11-1), No. 7 Central (3-12-1), No. 8 Hernando (2-13-1) and No. 9 Weeki Wachee (1-14-1).
Where - Nature Coast Technical.
When - Monday through Friday at NCT's Shark Tank Stadium. Semifinals set for 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. on Thursday. Finals set for 7 p.m. on Friday.
At Stake - Top two teams advance to the 3A-Region II quarterfinals on Jan. 24.