LAKE WALES - Hardee always relishes a victory over Sebring. But it's not often that it comes on the soccer field.
Monday night in Lake Wales, the Wildcats girls soccer team played arguably their best match of the season, upsetting the Blue Streaks by a score of 1-0 in the opening round of the Class 3A-District 11 Tournament at Legion Field.
"Sebring is a really good team," said Hardee coach Nicole Aubry. "I know they were down a few players tonight, but we kept our forwards fresh - and we have so many who each bring a different element - and I think that helped us quite a bit."
The win improved the Wildcats to 5-14-1 overall and 2-8-1 in district play. Hardee advanced to the district finals and faced Auburndale on Tuesday night. Results were not available at press time. Sebring dropped to 12-8-2 overall and 5-5-1.
The defensive tone was set early in the match. Neither team even attempted a shot on goal until close to 10 minutes had passed the opening half. Sebring struck first, plastering Hardee goalkeeper Jacqueline Perez with a litany of shots. The Streaks countered with a corner kick near 20th and 17th minute marks, but once again, Perez was there to deflect the shots.
Hardee had its best scoring attempt of the first half thwarted as well, when two Wildcats collided near the goal on a fastbreak, and Sebring goalie Shannon Bloemsma was able to secure the ball.
The Streaks nearly did themselves in just a few minutes later, though, as defensive lapse almost let Hardee boot in a goal. But Sebring caught a lucky break as the ball hit the left goal post and ricocheted away from the net.
After a scoreless first half, both teams continued their offensive woes in the second half. Sebring got a concerted effort from Scheele Grimes, whose motor never seemed to run out. But despite her valiant efforts, the Streaks shots continued to sail just wide of the goal.
As the match wound down to the final minutes, it appeared as if overtime was on the horizon.
But Hardee's Martha Valadez had other plans.
The Wildcats earned a free kick near the two minute mark, and Valadez lined up the ball as best she could with Sebring's goal from close to midfield. Her placement was spot on, though, and she booted a beautifully arching shot that sailed just over the outstretched hands of Bloemsma and into the back of the net.
The 1-0 lead proved to be insurmountable, as the Streaks simply ran out of time trying to tie the match.
"We didn't finish. We had our opportunities, and so did they. The difference is they capitalized," said Streaks coach Richie Birdsall. "I thought Shannon did great. And so did Marianna Becker, considering she was in a car accident last week. Defensively, she stepped up. And I thought Lacey Watson really stepped up as well."
Sebring has been hampered by injuries all season. Just days ago, the Streaks lost arguably their best scorer in junior Haylee Peters to a broken tibia and fibula. Other players have missed time due to pulled hamstrings, stress fractures, and torn ligaments.
But Birdsall isn't going to make excuses. That's not his style.
"With all the injuries we had, some in the preseason, to finish the year the way we did, we're really happy about that," Birdsall said. "Of course we're unhappy with going out early, but it just comes down to we didn't finish."
Sebring's boys soccer team will open its district tournament Monday night in Auburndale. The Streaks play Poinciana at 7:30 p.m.