Prep boys soccer: Gulf Coast, Barron Collier could face off for 4A-12 title

Gulf Coast's Sylvester Szczesniewicz, right, races to head off Bradenton-Manatee's Xavier Erazo Friday at Manatee High School. Gulf Coast won 2-1 to advance to the regional finals.

Gulf Coast's Sylvester Szczesniewicz, right, races to head off Bradenton-Manatee's Xavier Erazo Friday at Manatee High School. Gulf Coast won 2-1 to advance to the regional finals.

Barron Collier and Gulf Coast are on a collision course for an epic rematch in the Class 4A-District 12 boys soccer finals.

The Cougars and Sharks played two hard-fought games this season, both undefeated at the time of each matchup. Barron Collier will be looking for revenge after losing to its biggest rival in last year's district final, while Gulf Coast wants to repeat last year when it won the program's first title.

The 4A-12 semifinals are Thursday, and there will be a lot on the line in Friday's championship. But coaches are giving a big word of caution to the Cougars and Sharks — they have to make it to the final first.

Gulf Coast is the top seed in the district, and Barron Collier is No. 2. Before they can square off in a highly-anticipated championship rematch, the teams must get through Thursday's semifinals.

"(The players) are always anxious to play their rival school," Gulf Coast coach Alan Scott said, "but I keep telling them the foremost game is Thursday night. That's the most important game of the season. Without a win Thursday night, nothing we have planned can happen."

The Sharks (13-2-3) first play the winner of today's match between Palmetto Ridge and Cape Coral-Baker. Gulf Coast is 4-0 against those teams this season, winning by a combined 19-1 margin.

Barron Collier (10-4-4) plays Fort Myers in Thursday's semifinals. The Cougars beat Fort Myers twice in the regular season, winning 1-0 and 3-0.

Heading into the district, coaches hope the regular-season results inspire confidence, not cockiness.

"The hardest thing I have to do is to get my kids to focus," Barron Collier coach Charles Shanks said. "In the back of their heads it's, 'Gulf Coast, Gulf Coast, Gulf Coast.' Unfortunately, they're not focused on Fort Myers. We could go home Thursday if we're not focused."

The Sharks and Cougars seemed to be on a postseason collision course all season. The North Naples rivals played to a 0-0 draw on Dec. 6, keeping both undefeated.

They faced off again Dec. 17 with a combined 19 wins and no losses. Gulf Coast erased a one-goal deficit with two scores in the second half to win 2-1, and hand the Cougars their first loss.

Both teams have suffered a late season lull after taking two weeks off for the holidays, Barron Collier's the most dramatic.

After entering the second match against Gulf Coast 10-0-3, the Cougars haven't won since. Barron Collier has lost four times and tied once in their final five regular-season games.

"We came back unfocused from Christmas," Shanks said. "Everybody is playing a notch down. We're not firing on all cylinders. ... I told them, 'We can give up and start working on 2014 right now.' That seemed to spark them."

Gulf Coast ended the regular season 2-2-0 after no losses in its first 14 games. Scott said his team lost to quality opponents Bishop Verot and Lely, but also that he was resting some starters to get healthy for the postseason.

The Sharks won their first district championship last season. A win Thursday would put them in the regional playoffs (the top two teams from each district get in) for the third straight year and the fourth time since the school opened in 1998.

By finishing 4A-12 runner-up last year, Barron Collier returned to regionals after a seven-year absence. A victory Thursday would make it two trips in row to the state playoffs.

"I think we're peaking at the right moment," Scott said of Gulf Coast. "We came out and put high expectations on ourselves this year. We're excited for the real season to begin."

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