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Goals for glory, but defense wins

Without the nearly impregnable wall, the clutch scores wouldn't have mattered.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003

TAMPA -- Gulf Breeze hadn't allowed a postseason goal in 2003. In Thursday's state semifinal, Land O'Lakes scored two. Riviera Beach Suncoast entered Saturday's state final with 20 shutouts. There will not be a 21st.

To win the first team state title in school history, Land O'Lakes bested two of the toughest defenses in Class 2A. Now if the Gators had to play the toughest defense in this week's tournament, it might have been a different story.

But then, how could they?

You can't play yourself.

"My defense is awesome," goalkeeper Shannon Aitken said.

Land O'Lakes' great wall allowed one goal in two games on 26 total shots (14 by Gulf Breeze, 12 by Suncoast). The Gators knew it would not be easy to win state. But did it have to be this hard?

Land O'Lakes struggled to control the midfield in Thursday's 2-1 victory and played four extra five-minute periods. In Saturday's 1-0 win, the Gators faced a stiff first-half wind that kept their foe in front of its net. Combined, Land O'Lakes was outshot 16-26 and Aitken made 14 saves, compared to six by the opposing keepers.

How did the Gators do it?

"We just try to keep it together and play man-to-man," defensive stalwart Tara Eugenides said. "We try to keep it tight and obviously we did that because we accomplished our goal.

"When you want it enough, nothing's going to stop you. It's drive and determination."

The defense came to play from the start in both games, while the rest of the team started slowly.

"We knew we could do it," Aitken said. "We just had to get it going to play our game."

But then it wouldn't be a Land O'Lakes game without more controversy. Thursday it was the "Hand of Gagnon," when defender Jessica Gagnon's right arm appeared to shoot up and deflect a shot on goal in the first overtime. The officials made no call.

Saturday's controversy was even more muddled. Aitken's hand deflected a Suncoast shot at the crossbar in the 58th minute. Aleisha Peterson cleaned up the loose ball, heading it and sending the ball arcing backward, landing behind the net.

But Suncoast protested, claiming Peterson headed the ball inside the goal, sending it through a hole in the net. The officials decided otherwise. Suncoast appealed, and the officials inspected the right side of the net and repaired a minor tear with a small piece of tape. That was the side Peterson was on during the play.

Land O'Lakes coach Vicky King said the referees decided it wasn't possible for Peterson to head the ball through the inside of the net. "The referees said no," she said. "I thought she played it over the net."

To King, though, there was nothing controversial about the state title, or the effort put into it.

"They knew it was going to be tough no matter what," King said. "Everybody just had to play. We've worked all year for this. We've worked four years, 16 years, for this. And today was it."

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