'Canes earn revenge in OT thriller

PHU takes the hard road, but beats East Lake to make it to the final four.

Published February 11, 2006

EAST LAKE - Palm Harbor University is going to the final four, and ironically, the Hurricanes have East Lake to thank for the inspiration.

The Eagles (14-6-2) entered Friday night's final as the No. 1 seed because of a surprise victory over the Hurricanes (26-4) in the district championship. That win gave East Lake home field advantage, but also inspired Palm Harbor to play better on the road.

It paid off for the Hurricanes. They avenged the district loss with a thrilling 4-3 overtime victory.

"You learn a bit more from your losses," Hurricanes coach Mike Mannino said. "It was an awakening for our boys. They took the long scenic route. Every game was away, but it made it sweeter in the end."

The Eagles opened the game defending their No. 1 seed. Aidan Littlejohns scored 22 minutes into the contest and East Lake had the early lead. Nine minutes later, PHU fought back. Eugene Starikov knocked in a header to tie the game.

Late in the half, the Eagles' magic continued. Eddie Zuniga poked in a rebound and East Lake was sky high again with a 2-1 advantage.

In the second half, Starikov needed just eight minutes to score his second goal and the action was turning all Palm Harbor's way. The Hurricanes took 13 unanswered shots on goal and only brilliant goalkeeping by Charlie Coggin kept East Lake in the game.

With 4:50 to play, Starikov completed the hat trick and gave the Hurricanes their first lead, 3-2. It looked as though Palm Harbor had re-established itself, but the magical Eagles weren't done yet.

With just 18 seconds to play, Zuniga scored his second goal of the game , a 25-yard miracle boot that went high into the left corner of the net.

In overtime, the Hurricanes ended the suspense in less than two minutes. Max Venker dribbled in, put moves on two defenders, and took a point-blank shot at the goal. He scored and broke every heart on the East Lake side.

"We had taken it to them the whole game, so I had confidence we would pull it out," Venker said. "From the time we lost the district game, we wanted (East Lake) again in this game."

East Lake coach Tom Malinosky said it was a great game by both sides.

"I'm speechless," he said. "One team had to win. Unfortunately, it wasn't us. I think (Palm Harbor) is going to make Pinellas County proud."

3A: SPC gets return trip

ST. PETERSBURG - The Barons are going back to Fort Lauderdale.

St. Petersburg Catholic earned the right to play in the final four for the second consecutive year with a 2-0 win over Fort Myers Bishop Verot.

SPC (21-1-4) dominated with its speed and kept the Vikings on their heels.

"We're faster and plus we play a quicker game," Barons coach Anatol Popovich said.

Senior Robby Stahl scored the first goal in the 17th minute. After handling a crossing pass that covered much of the field's width, Stahl shot the ball at a tight angle, putting it just inside the right post.

The Barons added their second goal six minutes later on a thrilling shot by senior Justin Castellano. Castellano moved the ball quickly down the right side of the field and launched it in stride from outside the 18-yard box and into the upper left net.

Bishop Verot (16-4-5), which defeated the Barons in the region finals in 2004, was unable to get past goalkeeper Davis Rodriguez and the SPC defense. Although they picked up the pace of their game in the second half, the Vikings were outmatched by the Barons' speed and couldn't get the space needed to put quality shots on goal.

"We played our game," Popovich said. "It's possession, moving the ball around and keeping low shots."

As the team heads back to the finals, Popovich said he won't abandon the formula that's brought the Barons to this point.

"We're going to go continue doing what we've been doing all year," Popovich said. "It should work for us hopefully in Fort Lauderdale."

--ANTHONY SALVEGGI, Times correspondent