Boys soccer: Gators barely escape

By JOEY KNIGHT, Times Staff Writer
Published January 26, 2008

NEW PORT RICHEY - A virtual off-the-board underdog against the nation's fifth-ranked team, River Ridge enjoyed its 82 minutes of fame Friday.

That's how long Royal Knights coach Mike McHugh watched his strategy for an upset - flood the backfield with defenders and score on a counterattack - work superbly against Land O'Lakes in the Class 5A, District 7 final.

The Gators (25-1-1) needed an overtime goal from freshman Justin Lyles to escape with a tense 2-1 win.

"The whole year, everything's just kind of come to us," Lyles said. "Coach told us - he wrote it on the board - that they're not going to give it to us. We have to go earn it. And he was right."

The Gators, who tied the program's single-season record for victories, host Freedom in Thursday's region quarterfinals. River Ridge (8-10-3) travels to District 8 champ Wharton, where a Knights victory could set up a fourth meeting against the Gators - whom they now think they can play with.

"We know we can hang with them, and we showed that," McHugh said. "We can play defense."

They played prevent defense Friday, stretching six players across the back and forcing the Gators to work the ball to the wings.

The Gators scored first on Felix Soto's header off a Matthew Tanner corner kick in the 11th minute. The Knights tied it on Seth Wade's 8-yard shot directly in front of the net in the 35th minute.

"They packed in the back very well, they really shut down a lot of the passing lanes we like to look for ... but we kept pressing," Gators coach Mark Pearson said.

Land O'Lakes 2 River Ridge 1