Guardian of the goal

PINELLAS SOCCER PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Countryside enjoyed a comfortable season thanks to the prowess of keeper Jeff Attinella.

Published March 3, 2006

COUNTRYSIDE - Jeff Attinella knew he needed to come up big.

Nearly all the fans at Countryside's stadium were on their feet as the Cougars led unbeaten and nationally-ranked Gaither 4-3 during penalty kicks of the district final. Hunched over at the waist and bouncing rhythmically on the balls of his feet, Attinella stared down the Cowboys' Trent Anderson.

"No one expects the goalkeeper to make the save," Attinella said.

No one, except for Attinella.

As Anderson made his charge, Attinella's eyes drew a bead on the Cowboy midfielder's plant foot. He noticed the angle and the subtle position it was in. As the ball left Anderson's strike foot, Attinella slid in unison and smothered the chance.

"I've played with and against (Anderson) almost my whole life in club," Attinella said. "When I saw which way his plant foot was going, I knew I had it."

Just a snapshot in a remarkable season for this season's Times Player of the Year.

Griffin Gilstrap knocked home the winning PK on the next try, but it was Attinella's save that will resonate among Cougar fans. That win over Gaither paved the way toward Countryside's Class 6A state championship, the first title for the school since 1991.

"We had our ups and downs this year like any season," Attinella said. "But it ended so perfectly."

Fittingly, it was Attinella who saved the Cougars in their final match of the season, a 2-1 win against Hialeah American in the state finals. American buzzed around Countryside's penalty box for much of the final 20 minutes, but Attinella stood his ground.

"He's the best keeper in the state," Countryside coach Dave Sica said. "That was just another example of him putting the team on his back."

Attinella was the backbone of a Cougars team that set a school record (28) for wins. The 6-foot-2 junior finished with 20 shutouts this season, the last coming in the Cougars' 5-0 win against Fort Myers in the state semis.

"And he would have had more (shutouts) had we not pulled him with big leads during the season," Sica said.

And while Attinella's work during the season was impressive, it was his play down the stretch that separated him from some strong competition for Player of the Year.

"The bigger the game, the bigger he played," Sica said. "I mean, come on, shutting out a team like Gaither twice during the playoffs? That's almost unheard of."

After knocking off Gaither in the district finals, Attinella again blanked the Cowboys in the region final. Eighty minutes, zero goals against one of the top teams in the country.

"When we beat them the first time, some people thought it was a fluke," Attinella said. "But then we beat them again? We proved to people we could play and that gave us confidence heading into states."

Blessed with a condor-like wingspan and the reflexes of a funny car driver, Attinella credits former Rowdy and current Countryside assistant coach Kevin Clinton with teaching him the most important tool a keeper can possess - understanding how to read angles.

"Kevin's taught me everything I know about playing keeper," Attinella said of Clinton, whose son Kyle played in the Cougars' midfield. "He's prepared me for every situation."

And just like his sharp focus on Anderson's foot in the district finals, Attinella has not made any definite plans following graduation - he's tuned into defending the Cougars' state title next season.

"We're losing some great players in Griffin, Kyle and Dennis (Slagle)," he said. "But we've got some talented juniors and I don't see why we can't win it again next year."