By STEVE LEE, Times Staff Writer
LAND O'LAKES -- The Gators were close this time.
Closer, in fact, than they've ever been.
Not close enough, however, for what would have been their first final four appearance in school history.
A 2-1 loss to St. Augustine Nease in Friday's Class 2A, Region 2 final left Land O'Lakes one game shy of a state playoff berth for the fourth time in school history and second time at home in the past two seasons. Last season, Land O'Lakes lost 5-1 to Sarasota.
The Gators were shut out -- 4-0 against Lakewood and 10-0 against Clearwater Central Catholic, respectively -- in consecutive sectional games (the equivalent of the current regional final) in 1993 and 1994.
"It's hard, because each time you think, "We've been here before,' " Land O'Lakes coach Vicky King said. "I don't think we stumbled. We just didn't get there."
The Gators (23-2-1), ranked third in Class 2A, were bidding for their second straight comeback in the regionals against the state's second-ranked team.
On Tuesday, Land O'Lakes twice rallied from one-goal deficits in a 5-4 win over Orlando Bishop Moore that came down to penalty kicks.
King remained steadfast in her belief that her current team is the best she has coached in her 15 seasons at Land O'Lakes.
"No matter what the outcome, it's still the most well-rounded team I've ever had," King said before Friday's game. "They can dominate and they've proven they can come back."
The only blemish on Land O'Lakes' record had been a 2-0 loss to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas during a winter tournament. The Gators also got their lone tie in that tournament, 2-2 against Cape Coral Mariner.
Playing those top-caliber teams, King reasoned, would prove beneficial come playoff time and build the players' confidence.
"Their success never went to their heads," King said. "They played every game like it was just another game."
King said her players did not discuss the state final four, but that they were counting on playing at least one more game.
"We knew it was our last home game no matter what," said King, alluding to the final four scheduled for Friday and Saturday at Tampa's Ed Radice Sports Complex. "But not at one time did anybody say this was our last practice."
The regional final seemed an even match with both teams featuring a pair of high scorers, strong midfields and standout goalkeepers. Ultimately, the Panthers won the midfield battle, which led to a 22-11 shot advantage.
"Sometimes we left a hole in the middle," King said. "We were chasing them and not trying to win the ball."
"That's how we usually win games, by controlling the midfield," Nease coach Dave Silverberg said.
Entering Friday's game, Land O'Lakes' Stacy Bishop and Casie Poyssick combined for 95 goals. Nease countered with Lydia Sturgis and Jenna Silverberg, who combined for 87 goals.
Sturgis was the best player on the field Friday night. The William & Mary signee scored her 41st goal and set up Meridith Ringeisen's game-winner.
The score could have been lopsided if not for the standout play of Land O'Lakes goalkeeper Shannon Aitken.
"She kept us in the game," King said.
Making matters worse was Stephanie Swanson's ejection in the 70th minute. The junior defender was issued a red card after colliding with Golden Creavy.
That play was just one example of the game's intensity. Land O'Lakes' Sophie Spratley and Poyssick, and Nease's Emily Wolford and Ringeisen picked up yellow cards.
"They were probably the most physical team we've played," Poyssick said.
"The farther you go (into the playoffs) the more physical it's going to be," King said.
While most of the Land O'Lakes players were in tears after the game, ball boy Steven Swanson, Stephanie's brother, summed up the situation best.
"They had a very good season," he said, nodding his head.
GATORS THROUGH THE YEARS
2001-2002: 23-2-1. Won Sunshine Athletic Conference and district titles, lost regional final to St. Augustine Nease.
2000-2001: 24-6-1. Won conference and district titles, lost regional final to Sarasota.
1999-2000: 17-6-3. District runner-up, lost regional quarterfinal to Chamberlain.
1998-1999: 11-11-1. Disqualified from district tournament for using ineligible player.
1997-1998: 17-12-1. District champion, lost regional semifinal to Satellite.
1996-1997: 16-4-4. Conference champion, district runner-up, lost regional quarterfinal to Lakeland Jenkins.
1995-1996: 19-4-1. District champion, lost regional semifinal to Daytona Beach Seabreeze.
1994-1995: 12-8-2. District runner-up.
1993-1994: 11-8-4. District and region champion, lost to Clearwater Central Catholic in sectionals.
1992-1993: 15-4-4. District and region champion, lost to Lakewood in sectionals.
1991-1992: 9-7-2. Lost in first round of districts.
1990-1991: 12-9-2. Lost in first round of districts.
1989-1990: 8-8-1. Lost in first round of districts.
1988-1989: 6-10-1. Lost in second round of districts.
1987-1988: 7-4-0. Lost in first round of district tournament in first year of high school girls soccer in Pasco County.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111