High School Sports

Girls soccer | Lakewood Ranch blanks North Port in 4A-11 semifinal

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Maria Miller spent most of Wednesday's Class 4A-District 11 semifinal doing what she's done all season for Lakewood Ranch's girls soccer team: patrolling the back line and working in tandem with Nicole Wurster to provide a formidable center back pairing that thwarts opposing attackers.

When North Port tallied one shot on goal, Miller's job duties were validated.

But the senior co-captain was given a different mission late in the pivotal win-or-go home match against the Bobcats.

With about eight minutes remaining, Miller's number was called to step to the penalty spot and boot in an important goal.

Her conversion sealed Wednesday's match, sending the Mustangs to Friday's final with a 2-0 triumph over feisty North Port.

"Whenever I go to take a PK, I always have a spot in mind," said Miller, who is in her first season playing as a center back. "And that's one of the big things about a PK is that you have to have a spot. And when you go to kick it, no matter what the goalie does, you have to keep going for that spot."

The top-seeded Mustangs (19-0-2) had trouble deciphering the Bobcats' defense without winger Julia Ortiz, who was out with the flu. North Port handed Lakewood Ranch one of its two ties, a 1-1 deadlock on Nov. 18.

Lakewood Ranch head coach Guy Virgilio said he hopes Ortiz, who provides pace and crossing from the wing, will be back for Friday's district final, when the Mustangs host No. 2-seeded Venice, a 7-0 winner on Wednesday against Sarasota.

The Mustangs also lost playmaking midfielder Maddison Krstec to an ankle injury during the match.

Mix in North Port's defensive shape holding firm, and Ranch was flummoxed for most of the match.

"We've worked really hard on our defense this year," North Port head coach Lee Thomas said. "We changed our formation a little bit, and the girls have bought in. They played their hearts out (Wednesday), and sometimes you can't substitute anything except getting out there and playing hard."

The Mustangs broke through late in the first half.

Hannah Miller connected with Talia Falco, who jockeyed her defender off for a one-on-one with North Port's keeper and the senior striker buried her chance in the top-right corner of the net.

That 31st minute goal wasn't enough, though. Virgilio said his team needed a second one.

Cue Maria Miller, who took control of the late penalty call to put the Mustangs up 2-0.

That lead was insurmountable. North Port's attack was held to just one shot on target, and it came with four minutes remaining.

Consequently, Miller aided yet another clean sheet for the Mustangs. It was the 12th straight shutout for Ranch and its 16th of the season.

"I've never played center back in my entire life. This is my first year back there," said Miller, who moved from her center midfield role to shore up the defense. "I think it's all about getting in the right mindset and having girls around you who also know what they are doing. So having my other center back (Wurster), who I play with on my club team, we work really well together."