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Sunday, Sep 24, 2017
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Bus rides bring Gators together

LAND O' LAKES - It has been about nine hours — give or take — on a bus. But for the Land O' Lakes boys soccer team, who, Saturday morning play in the program's second state-championship game against Plantation American Heritage at 11:05 a.m., nine hours may not have been enough. "We had some crazy bonding time on those bus rides," Gators leading scorer with 33 goals, Josh Davis, said, referring to the two- and seven-hour bus rides to Gainesville and Fort Walton Beach for the region final and state semifinal. "It showed us who we really are, and everyone loves a good road trip. It was — what, nine hours of bus rides? Uncomfortable bus rides, but I'd do it all over again." Indeed, it's now a tradition for the Gators (22-3-2), who, despite being about 30 minutes from the site of the Florida High School Athletic Association boys soccer finals, coach Mark Pearson and administrators arranged to have a bus take them to USF's Corbett Soccer Stadium on Saturday morning.
"I think it's become just about our favorite part," Davis added. Perhaps it's a move, not exactly calculated, that Land O' Lakes needed after failing to secure its eighth-straight district championship when it lost 3-2 to in-town rival Sunlake. Since then, as well having to play four-straight postseason games on the road, the Gators have outscored opponents 16-1 and outshot them 75-24. "We came in thinking (the game against Sunlake) was just another game," said senior forward Andy Garcia, who has 26 goals. "After that, we wanted to prove we were the best in the county and doing that has gotten us here: the state finals." That loss probably stung the most, especially for Garcia, who was emotionally inconsolable after the game. "We had to pull it together," Garcia added. "We were still in it, despite losing, and now, it's just amazing what we've done, to be away every game and get to this point." What might have hit home hard for the Gators, at the time, was that the boys soccer program had a string of early exits, dating back to, at least the, 2004-05 region finalist season, the deepest a Gators team had been since back-to-back state semifinals in 1999 and 2000. Pearson and his Gators lost the 1999 championship game, then, only a few years later in 2003, watched their female counterparts bring home the county's first soccer title. "It's been frustrating, yeah, especially with some of the teams we've had that may even have more talent than we have this year," Pearson said. "Yet, this team ranks right up there with 1999 and 2000. … This team found the right time to come together, especially after that loss to Sunlake. It galvanized us and made us realize that we're way better than that." Certainly no other team has played better. Of the 10 state finalist teams in all five FHSAA classes, Land O' Lakes has the least goals against. Critics might point to the competition on that, even echoing the early-exit complaints. The Gators, on the other hand, wonder how many hours of validation does everyone need? "In the time I've been here, there's been 11 district titles, eight conference titles, two regional titles — how much more can you win? I don't think whether we win Saturday or not validates us as a program," Pearson said. "But really? Perennial choker? I don't know many other programs that have seven-straight district titles, that have done what we've done in the past decade and a half — the scholarships, the wins. "I don't think winning a state title validates your program, but I don't know one guy on this team that won't do whatever it takes to win the game Saturday. To me, that's validation."

Correspondent Mike Camunas can be reached at mike.camunas@gmail.com. For live updates from Saturday's 3A state final, follow him on Twitter @MikeCamunasTrib, as well as @TBO_PrepSports and @RickHPascoTrib.
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