MULBERRY - Lake Placid girls soccer coach John Merlo credits his team's late-season turnaround with its win over Mulberry on Dec. 19. So it was fitting that the Green Dragons began the postseason in similar fashion, thumping Mulberry in the Phosphate Bowl Tuesday night by a score of 3-1 in the semifinals of the Class 2A-District 10 Tournament.
The win improved Lake Placid to 12-4-3 overall and 5-1-3 in district play, while Mulberry dropped to 11-9-3 and 3-5-1.
"After making it to regional's last season in what we thought was a rebuilding year, our expectations this season were nothing less than making it to the championship game," Merlo said. "So to advance to the district finals on Mulberry's turf feels good."
"It all kicked in down the stretch, and I think we only lost one game out of the last 10."
The Dragons wasted little time in getting on the scoreboard, as Jenna Blount put Lake Placid up 1-0 at the fifth minute when she zipped a header past Panthers goalie Francis Cantillano.
The early advantage seemed to hurt the Dragons offense, though, as the team struggled to finish potential scoring plays.
Mary Grace Bates lost control of the ball just in front of the goal. Blount's attempt off of a perfect cross kick from Ana Ramirez was stuffed by Cantillano. The struggles on offense led to a lackluster effort on defense, and Mulberry's Susana Canales snuck a ball past Dragons Goalkeeper Tamija Douglas to tie the game at the 26th minute.
But the tie was just the catalyst the Dragons needed.
Following a spectacular defensive stand, in which Eden Taylor sacrificed her body to stop a Panthers shot after Douglas was lured away from the goal, Lake Placid ramped up its offensive pressure.
The Dragons were aggressive, chasing loose balls and walloping Cantillano with a myriad of shots. As the half wound down, the Panthers frustrations with the Dragon's up-tempo play spilled over into a Mulberry penalty, and Lake Placid was awarded a direct kick. As the shot sailed into the center of the box, Claire LeBlanc alertly located the ball and tapped it into the left corner of the net to give the Dragons a 2-1 lead.
"They stepped it up a notch," Merlo said. "You love to be on the run in the most important parts of the match - and that's what we did."
In the second half, Lake Placid put the match out of reach when Bates added another goal at the 64th minute to give the Dragons a 3-1 lead. The defense continued its sterling play as well, as the Dragons nullified Mulberry's best scorer, Kayla Tillman, who finished with zero goals and just a handful of shot attempts.
Lake Placid will meet McKeel (14-4-1, 6-0-1) for the district championship Friday night in Mulberry. The match will start at 7 p.m.
The Dragons went 0-1-1 against McKeel in the regulars season, losing 4-0 in Lakeland and battling to a 1-1 tie in Lake Placid. Avon Park, the only other 2A-10 team in Highlands County, lost in the first round of the tournament to Frostproof by a score of 5-0.
"We're going to be shooting for that district championship," Merlo said. "It's eluded us the last three or four years. And we're gunning for it."
Already in the playoffs due to FHSAA regulations, the Dragons could earn a home playoff match in the regional quarterfinals if they beat the Wildcats on Friday.
"We're a small school, so we have to share athletes," Merlo said. "And there were a few losses and ties early in the season when we didn't have a full roster. But I think that helped us build our character, because the girls learned 'hey, we can play without our starters.' And when the starters came back, it just all started to click."