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Gators' unity tough to beat

With the help of superstition, candy messages and a team pledge, Land O'Lakes won't be intimidated by No. 2 Sarasota.

By LINDA ROTHSTEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001


LAND O'LAKES -- No matter what happens in tonight's regional final against Sarasota, Land O'Lakes will end the game the same way it has all season -- by reciting the team pledge:

I give my head, I give my heart, I give my hand to my team. One school, one team, one goal. We unite.

They're not exactly superstitious, but the Gators practice numerous rituals to help them prepare for games.

Coach Vicky King, for example, always hangs the players' jerseys on the right side of their lockers. And since the playoffs began, she always does it the night before the game.

In fact, before a recent playoff game, King forgot to hang up the jerseys before she left school. So, after getting home, she drove back to put the uniforms in their proper places.

There's another ritual King has practiced throughout the season. She types up inspirational messages on small slips of paper and gives them to her players with a piece of candy on game day. This, too, she does the night before. The messages are simple, like "Go Gators, Beat the Knights," or often refer to the candy.

King once gave her players York Peppermint Patties with the message, "Feel the Sensation" -- the candy's motto. And before the regional semifinal against Seminole, she gave out M&Ms with the message, "Manipulate & Maneuver."

As for the players, a handful follow the tradition of not changing their winning game socks.

The Gators also always huddle before games and chant to get themselves fired up. And after a game, no matter the outcome, the team recites the pledge that is posted prominently in the locker room.

"It's like a routine you get into," King said.

These traditions, of course, aren't the reason for the team's unprecedented success, but go a long way in establishing team unity and bring an element of fun to all the hard work it takes to become a winning team.

The Gators will all wear blue team shirts to school today before hosting Sarasota in the Class 3A, Region 3 final at 7:30 p.m.

Sarasota (25-2-2) will be the most formidable opponent the 24-5-1 Gators have faced this season. Ranked No. 2 in the state by the Florida Sports Writers Association and No. 14 in the nation by FoxStudentSports.com, the Sailors have outscored their opponents 53-0 in their past nine games. Sarasota has beaten both of its regional playoff opponents, St. Petersburg and King, by 8-0 margins.

The Sailors have the reputation of being big and physical and thrive on a large field (their own is even bigger than Land O'Lakes').

"They are a good team but we've played well against good teams," King said.

"In the last weeks, we've played well every night. So I expect we'll play well again (tonight)."

The No. 10-ranked Gators have plenty of firepower of their own and a tough defense to go with it. Land O'Lakes has also shut out its two regional playoff opponents, Plant 7-0 and Seminole 1-0. Freshman keeper Shannon Aitken boasts a school-record 19 shutouts, eclipsing the previous mark of 10 set last year. Land O'Lakes' two leading scorers, Casie Poyssick and Stacy Bishop, have combined for an impressive 81 goals and 32 assists. This is the Gators' first-ever stab at making it to the final four and they aren't intimidated. "The pressure's always on us to perform, to win, to play well," King said. "Our season has been successful, no matter what happens. ... They're playing with confidence now."

Want to go?

WHAT: Class 3A, Region 3 girls soccer final

WHO: Sarasota (25-2-2) at Land O'Lakes (24-5-1)

WHEN: Tonight, 7:30

WHERE: Gators Stadium at Land O'Lakes

HOW THEY GOT HERE: In the regional quarterfinals and semifinals Sarasota defeated St. Petersburg 8-0 and King 8-0. Land O'Lakes defeated Plant 7-0 and Seminole 1-0.

THE SKINNY: Sarasota, ranked No. 2 in the state and No. 14 in the nation, will be Land O'Lakes' most formidable opponent this season. The Sailors have outscored their opponents 53-0 in their past nine games. This is Land O'Lakes' first-ever appearance in the regional final and its first chance to advance to the final four. The Gators are ranked No. 10 in the state and have also shut out their two playoff opponents. The defense boasts a school record 19 shutouts and Stacy Bishop and Casie Poyssick have combined for 81 goals and 32 assists.

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