EAST MANATEE - With her calf muscles aching for relief, Nikki Gainey wasn't about to give them any rest while the game was still in doubt.
After 100 minutes of soccer, which included a first and second half and two overtime periods, most of which the sophomore spent being hounded by three and four defenders, Gainey wanted to be the Braden River goalkeeper for the shootout.
She limped over to her coach, Julie Piccirilli, and asked to be put in net. Piccirilli, who knows Gainey is a top-level goalkeeper at the club soccer level, happily obliged.
The decision to put Gainey in goal paid off when the sophomore turned back two shots and watched two fly over her head and the net. Her save on the final shot of overtime gave the Pirates a 2-1 victory over Avon Park after a 2-1 win in the shootout, and host Braden River advanced to the Class 4A-District 10 final.
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"Nikki is one of those girls, when she decides she's gonna do something, she's gonna do it right," Piccirilli said.
As she almost casually swatted the final shot aside, Gainey's teammates rushed off the midfield line, jumping and screaming to celebrate the second-year school's first trip to the district soccer finals.
"I was saying, 'Please let me save them,' " said Gainey, who scored the game-tying goal, her 20th overall, in the 64th minute. "It means everything. We came from like second to last last year to second this year, so that's pretty good."
Braden River (11-4) will host the final at 6 p.m. today against top-seeded Palmetto, which survived a surprisingly tough game with a 2-0 victory over Sebring.
Between shootout chances, student trainer Brandon Lam massaged Gainey's soar leg muscles before she hopped up and tried to turn back another shot.
"This feels great, but I'm really tired though," Gainey said.
Amanda Peterson and Ashley Phillips made Braden River's goal in the shootout.
"There's definitely a lot of different personalities and social cliques on this team, but they come together," Piccirilli said. "They have bonded as a team this year."
Palmetto 2, Sebring 0
The Tigers (11-7), who went undefeated and allowed only one goal all year in district, survived a bit of a scare in the opener when Holly Christensen broke up a scoreless tie on a penalty kick with 16 minutes left in the game. Vanessa Bazan added the Tigers' second goal in the final minutes, but Palmetto coach Art Weaver said in a game like that, whoever scored first was going to win, no matter when the first goal came.
Becca Foy, the Tigers' stopper, helped keep Sebring in check while the Tigers looked for a way to score.
"When we got that (goal), we just took off down the stretch," Foy said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh. Finally.' "
The Tigers are one win away from defending their district championship, which Weaver said would mean a lot to the program in a year some expected the team to be rebuilding.
"Last year, we don't want to make out like it was a fluke, but we had a lot more leadership on the team," Weaver said. "This is a younger team that hasn't played as much together. We talked about Lakewood Ranch and some of the dynasties here that have won (several) districts, and we told them if (we want) the same talk about Palmetto, it starts here."