PALMETTO - The season floated toward Benicio Lara in the form of a soccer ball, which had bounced around the front of the goal like a pinball.
Lara, Palmetto High's sweeper, started the flurry of activity with a crossing pass to Caleb Green, who blasted a shot that was stopped by Haines City keeper David Spinosa. The rebound bounced off a Haines City defender and popped in the air. That's when Lara moved back into the play.
"I wasn't really expecting it," Lara said. "I didn't have time to think."
Instinct told him to head the ball, which he did, sending it past Spinosa and into the net for the game-winner in Palmetto's 2-1 victory Thursday in the Class 4A-Region 3 quarterfinal.
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The goal, which came with just under nine minutes to play in regulation and completed a second-half comeback, advanced the Tigers (16-3-6) to Tuesday's 4A-3 semifinal against host Naples Golden Gate. A win there, and the Tigers advance to the first regional final in the program's history.
Golden Gate (15-2-2), the Class 4A-District 12 champions, beat Englewood Lemon Bay 3-1.
Fredy Rodriguez gave Haines City (8-6-1) a 1-0 lead 24 minutes into the game when he bounced a shot past Taylor Halley, Palmetto's freshman keeper making his first start of the season.
It looked for the longest time as if that goal would be enough for the Hornets to earn their first-ever regional victory because the Tigers offense just couldn't find a rhythm.
"I think we were a little nervous in the first half and didn't play our game," Palmetto coach Dustin Dahlquist.
Haines City left the midfield open, but Palmetto couldn't take advantage. Instead, the Tigers tried to beat the Hornets upfield with long passes, which were intercepted by the quick Hornets defense.
"We had to change the pace of the game and pass the ball better," Dahlquist said.
So he switched the Tigers' alignment, sending players into the middle so they could advance the ball with shorter passes.
It seemed to work when Josue Martinez drilled a shot on net midway through the second half, but Spinosa was able to punch the ball away.
The goalie, though, had no chance of stopping Kyle Grimes, who converted a rebound for the tying goal 27 minutes into the second half. Five minutes later, Lara headed home the game-winner.
"I was in the right spot at the right time," Lara said.
So was Halley, who jumped and punched away a shot with six minutes to play just before the ball sailed under the crossbar.
With the help from defenders Tom Sicking, Jason Nobles and Jose Martinez, Halley was able to preserve the lead.
"He came up huge a couple of times," Dahlquist said. "Oh man, did he play great."