Commentary

George Jenkins falls to Palm Harbor in championship

Updated: February 17, 2009, 5:39 AM ET
By Nicholas Murray | Special to ESPNRISE.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- George Jenkins' (Lakeland, Fla.) girls' soccer team fought them off all season. Every challenger that tried to knock off the defending Florida Class 5A champion and end a 58-game undefeated streak that started with the 2007-08 season had been rebuffed.

Then -- one win away from a second straight state title and another undefeated season -- the Eagles finally met their match.

ESPNRISE FAB 50 No.33 Palm Harbor University (22-2) stifled No. 2 Jenkins in open play and scored twice in the last 13 minutes to earn the Florida Class 5A state title with a 3-1 win at Pepin Stadium at the University of Tampa on Saturday night. The title was the Hurricanes' fourth, all coming since 1999.

Before the championship loss, the only blemish on the Eagles' record this season was a 0-0 tie against district rival Winter Haven in December. Lithia Newsome, which handed the Eagles their last loss Jan. 30, 2007, had been turned away in consecutive region finals.

"I couldn't be more proud of this group. They have nothing to be ashamed of; they've done tremendously," Jenkins head coach Joe Lenard said. "They came into this season with a target on their back. Everyone wanted to knock them down, so obviously playing against us they brought their 'A' game, and we just came up a little short today."

Palm Harbor took a 1-0 lead into halftime thanks to Catherine Brinkman, but the Eagles (26-1-1) tied the game early in the second half on a free kick by University of Florida commit Kayla Bala that hit off the crossbar before being knocked in from close range by Christine Knudstrup.

Bala had a second chance to make an impact in a dead-ball situation, but pulled her shot wide left on a free kick just outside the penalty area.

That was the closest Bala came to scoring, as Hurricanes defender senior Ellycia Colon did a masterful job clamping down on the NSCAA All-American. That determination and relentlessness applied to the Hurricanes' midfield as well, as Palm Harbor won the bulk of possession, holding play in Jenkins' end for large portions of the second half.

With 13 minutes to go, Paige Lombard beat her defender to latch onto a through-ball on the left and flicked the ball past advancing Jenkins goalkeeper Caitlyn Currie into the center of the penalty area. Palm Harbor freshman Anja Decker was left with the simple task of slotting her shot home into the vacant net.

The Hurricanes put the game away five minutes later, when Queli Ornelas flicked a header through the Eagles' defense, releasing Heather Mariscal into the penalty area. Mariscal was brought down by Currie, earning the goalkeeper a red card, and Brinkman converted the penalty kick.

Palm Harbor coach John Planamenta, who led the Hurricanes to a title in 2006 and whose team was returning to the state final for the fifth time in six seasons, said his team had a great deal of respect for the Eagles as their undefeated run came to an end.

"I know it's not easy getting back here," Planamenta said. "George Jenkins is a strong program. You hear about them all the time, and you know some of the players. To make it back to a final in consecutive years is extremely difficult."

For her part, Bala was not overly unhappy after the game. After having considered not playing her senior season before it even began, she said that she was glad she did and she was thrilled to have been able to develop her leadership skills on a team that started five freshmen.

"I'm not a born leader," Bala said. "I really learned how to be a good role model for these girls, and that's what I'm going to take away from this: the leadership that I've learned."

Knudstrup was one of those five freshman starters, and with both goalkeepers returning, a strong young defensive core, and others like forward Tori Abnathy returning, the Eagles figure to be back contending for another title next season.

"We have seven freshmen, and they're all really good," Knudstrup said. "I think our chances are really good. We only have four seniors going away, and even though they're all key players, I think we can all step it up."

For those that are moving on -- Bala and fellow seniors Ashley Yamnitz, Brittany Trawick and Tessa Syvertsen -- just making it back to have a chance to defend their title was reward enough for another outstanding season.

"I'm just so excited we got to the state final," Bala said. "We didn't win, that's unfortunate, but I'm leaving on a high no matter what."