VENICE -- While Sarah Donofrio adjusted her goalkeeping gloves and Braden River set up for a corner kick, four Pirates trotted to midfield. The brief delay gave Braden River a chance to make its second bulk substitution of the game, and Savannah DeCastro and four teammates jogged on to the field during the 18th minute at Powell-Davis Stadium.
Attacking midfielder Lexi Madrid launched a ball into the box from the left corner and Venice knocked it away once. The Pirates had another chance to set up. BRHS worked the ball back to the left corner where Madrid was still ready. She sent a cross into the box again.
This time there was the chaos Braden River wanted. Sara Kate Dyson got a foot on the ball. Then a defender did. Finally, it wound up with DeCastro at point-black range. The attacking midfielder punched it in for the first goal of the game.
Eight times during Wednesday's 2-0 win against the Indians in Venice for the Class 4A-District 11 semifinal, the Pirates (9-5-1, 6-3) subbed four players in at once. In total, BRHS used 16 players and first wore down the Indians, then outlasted them.
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"Our strategy was just to sub, sub, sub and try to wear them down," head coach Don Engelberger said. "The only way we could do that is just to keep the pressure on."
The No.3-seed Pirates advance to Friday's district final, where they will play top-seed North Port at 7 p.m. Braden River also qualifies for the Region 3 quarterfinal Jan. 21. The Bobcats reached the district championship with a 4-0 win against Punta Gorda Charlotte on Wednesday.
As the slight underdog on the road to second-seeded Venice, Braden River chose to lean heavily on its one obvious advantage. The Pirates have 10 players capable of playing either midfield or striker in their 4-4-2 formation and every 10 minutes
or so Engelberger sent four fresh players in.
One of those fresh forwards was able to gather a loose ball and get BRHS on the board shortly after checking in for a set piece. Moments before halftime -- and minutes after a substitution -- Braden River scored to take its final 2-0 lead.
"They don't really have like a bench," attacking midfielder Camryn Lizardi said. "We always have fresh players on the field."
The Pirates soundly outplayed the Indians (8-9-3, 7-3) during the second half, first peppering Donofrio with a shot on goal in the second minute and then piecing together two more scoring opportunities before breaking through in the 18th minute.
After putting two more shots on goal during the next 20 minutes and banging another off the crossbar, BRHS made its fourth and final substitution of the half during stoppage time as Venice applied pressure.
With the final seconds ticking away, Braden River had a throw in on its own side of the field and time for a final counterattack. Madrid fielded the throw with space and raced toward midfield. She sent a through ball down the right sideline to defender Megan Wagner, who crossed into the box from the right corner. Two Pirates converged in front of the net and midfielder Jaden Brown deflected Wagner's cross into the net for an insurance goal just before the halftime whistle.
"Any team that feels comfortable putting 15 girls on the field is a good team," Engelberger said. "They don't have the bench that we have and I think we took advantage of that." And after being beaten back to its side of the field, BRHS used its depth to survive the final minutes. Venice launched eight shots toward the net during the first eight minutes of the second half and forced Amber Dion to make her fourth and fifth saves of the match. The goalkeeper finished with eight.
Twelve of the first 13 shots during the final 40 minutes were taken by Indians. At the 60-minute mark, though, the match shifted. Braden River took six of the final nine shots and survived for a shot at a district title.
"They just realized that they weren't working as hard as we were and then we just kind of switched off. We thought we were gonna win the game," Lizardi said, "but then we kind of switched on."