PALMETTO -- Rui Fernandez and Palmetto knew they had a weapon waiting on the sideline this season in Ben Espinal.
The midfielder played only a handful of games for the Tigers, as PHS opted to rest its highly touted senior for the postseason.
The Tigers' postseason began Wednesday in Palmetto, so Espinal's season effectively did, too.
By the end of the 31st minute, Espinal had a hat trick. With its top offensive player in the lineup, PHS rolled to a 7-2 win against Venice in the Class 4A-District 11 semifinals at Harllee Stadium.
"He's played about eight, nine games with us.
We kind of wanted to rest him for the playoffs," Fernandez said. "He's a good player. We knew that he was going to come in and help us."
The second-seeded Tigers, who clinched a spot in the Class 4A-Region 3 quarterfinals with the win, will play for a district title Friday in North Port against the top-seeded Bobcats.
Espinal scored his first goal after PHS (13-9-1, 6-2-1) spent almost the entire first seven minutes on offense.
His run during the sixth minute set up a corner kick, which eventually turned into a goal kick for the third-seeded Indians. Espinal picked off Venice's goal kick and beat the goalkeeper for the opening score.
Each of the three goals Espinal scored during the first half to send Palmetto into the break with a 3-0 lead showcased a different part of his ability.
In the 18th minute, Espinal finished a cross from fellow midfielder Domingo Diaz in front of the net. In the 31st, he chased down a through ball behind the defense, danced around the goalkeeper and placed home his third goal around another defender.
After managing three goals total during a loss and draw with Venice (16-3-3, 4-3-2) during the regular season, Espinal had three by the break.
"We could've won those games," Fernandez said. "The difference is that we were able to put the ball in the back of the net."
The Tigers scored again in the 41st minute when defender Alfredo Manriquez headed in a corner kick, then twice more in the next eight minutes on strikes by forwards Jorge Morales and Candido Calvillo. In the 80th, defender Aranth Pineda gave PHS its seventh goal and its biggest scoring output since Palmetto netted eight against Sarasota Booker on Nov. 23.
The Tigers also trotted out a new goalkeeper Wednesday; Ryan Hirst made his debut in net.
The converted defender had been impressive during warm-ups and in practice, and Fernandez trusts the junior's experience. Although he conceded a pair of second-half goals, the blowout gave him an opportunity for a relatively easy first game in goal.
"He has pretty good instincts as a defender and as a goalkeeper he has pretty good hands, so we decided to try him," Fernandez said. "Maybe they could've been saves, but he's new to the position."