Coach Skip Glover, whose team is 9-5-2 in his first season, thinks the Royal Knights can derail a third meeting of Pasco County's top two teams, Land O'Lakes and Mitchell, when the Class 5A, District 5 tournament begins Tuesday. River Ridge plays host to the Mustangs in the 7 p.m. semifinal.
"I think we can win," Glover said.
If the Knights don't pull off the upset, the county is in for a show in Friday's 7 p.m. championship.
The Gators and Mustangs became rivals last season when visiting Mitchell upset Land O'Lakes 1-0. It was on senior night, in the regular-season finale.
The Gators went on to win the championship. The Mustangs won their first district title and reached the region semifinals in the third-year program's first postseason.
Now the teams are locked in the same class and district and are good enough to meet a fourth time in the region final.
This season Land O'Lakes (20-1-2), tied for sixth in the Class 5A poll, has gotten the better of Mitchell (17-1-2).
After an early-season 1-all tie at Mustang Stadium, the Gators took a 1-0 victory in the rematch at home. The two teams are contrasts: Mitchell's blazing speed and scoring athleticism matched against Land O'Lakes' maturity and precision ball-control scheme.
Mentally, they're just as different.
"They are the defending state champions," Kukec said. "Those girls want to prove they're as good as last year. They are driven, but that's what makes them good.
"You cannot underestimate this kind of mental edge. In our case, I would have to say it has given them an extra 2 or 3 percent more than us."
Kukec wonders if the Gators hold some sway over his team. Has Land O'Lakes, tested in last season's state title run and supposedly rebuilding this season, gotten inside Mitchell's collective head?
"There is a mental aspect to this whole thing in my opinion because it is Land O'Lakes," Kukec said. "It might be that some of the girls might be nervous when they play against Land O'Lakes, and therefore they make some mistakes that they wouldn't make normally.
"We play very good teams like East Lake (winning 4-0), but in those cases we think of them just as another team. I don't think that we have played yet against Land O'Lakes at the level we could play."
Gators coach Vicky King said her players are tougher mentally this season. Part of it is the experience the starters earned as role players during the state run. But a lot comes from this team's desire to separate itself from that team.
"You can't compare this team to last year," King said. "They're their own team. They've made their own name. This team is totally different than last year's team. We don't even compare ourselves to last year. We don't even talk about last year.
"But the experience has been great for everybody. We know what's out there."
So how could a third meeting play out?
Kukec said the second one turned because Land O'Lakes' Brittani Stoltz scored off a Mitchell defensive error, while the Mustangs failed to convert off a Gators' defensive error.
King said senior goalkeeper Shannon Aitken may have been the difference in the second meeting, netting nine saves in the Land O'Lakes' 1-0 victory. She was at a North Carolina tournament during the first meeting, when rookie keeper Brittany Sprunt made her first start in the 1-all tie.
"Shannon played in the second game," King said, "and maybe the team plays with a little more confidence knowing she's back there."