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Gators' defense the difference

Aggressive play and key saves have helped Land O'Lakes limit opponents to 20 fewer goals this season.

By STEVE LEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2001


LAND O'LAKES -- With East Lake swarming the net and keeper Shannon Aitken caught out of position, someone had to come up big for Land O'Lakes.

When a shot came out of a crowd at the top of the penalty box, defender Amanda Gulino preserved a 2-1 win by making a kick save on the goal line in the Class 3A, District 9 final.

"I didn't have anyone marked up, so I just went behind Shannon and then I kicked (the ball away from the net)," Gulino recalled. "I always go behind her."

Coach Vicky King said Land O'Lakes defenders have come up with crucial saves on or near the goal line a handful of times this season. Saves like Gulino's, along with consistent play in back and a strong transition game, have helped the Gators limit foes to 19 goals in 29 games.

By comparison, the Gators (23-5-1) allowed 39 goals last season when they finished 17-7-4 and bowed out of the playoffs in the regional quarterfinals.

While the offensive exploits of Land O'Lakes scoring leaders Stacy Bishop (38 goals, 27 assists) and Casie Poyssick (43, 5) have been touted throughout the season, the team is two wins shy of its first state final four appearance, in part, because of a solid defense.

"Good teams are built around good defenses," King said.

"I think the defense is what wins (games) for us," Gulino added.

That so-called winning combination, which has been instrumental in keeper Shannon Aitken setting a school record with 18 shutouts, includes Tara Eugenides, Beth Kinsman, Emily Sarginger, Stephanie Swanson and Gulino.

"When all of us are playing together and on our game, we're real hard to get by," Gulino said. "I think everyone on the defense is real aggressive."

None, however, are more aggressive than Eugenides, a former midfielder who has played sweeper since last year's playoff run. She does not hesitate to tackle opponents who get withing striking distance of the Gators' net and she routinely can be heard barking instructions to her teammates during games.

"She started up front last year and took a lot of shots, but didn't finish a lot," King said of Eugenides, who had 10 goals last season.

King noticed that opponents' scoring chances decreased when Eugenides was moved to the back late last season.

"She's not afraid to win the ball out of the air," King said of Eugenides, who at 145 pounds is not pushed off the ball often. "She's strong; solid."

Yet, as solid as Eugenides is on defense, King said her sweeper "still has a tendency to push forward."

More often than not, that is by design since King constantly tells her defenders to join the attack.

"The defense has to control the ball just as much as the offense," King said. "Oftentimes our goals are produced from the transition of our defense and how they push the ball forward.

"Scoring starts with a strong defense. They don't just play defense. They play offense, also."

So far in the post-season, Swanson has contributed the most offensively by scoring two goals. Eugenides has a goal and two assists; Kinsman has a goal; Gulino has two assists; and Sarginger has an assist.

A solid defense in front of Aitken, a freshman who has the most shutouts in the county, is partially why King calls this year's team her most balanced in 14 seasons at Land O'Lakes.

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