Palm Harbor girls soccer team has been a national powerhouse for a couple of decades now, but in 2022-23, it has a chance to definitively prove it’s the dominant power in the inaugural Tampa Bay Champions League.
On Wednesday, we can all join in the party. Five minutes away, right down the street at Palm Harbor University HS.
If you can prove you’re the best team in Greater Tampa Bay, you’ve proven (in all honesty) that you’re one of the elite teams in the country. And that’s a fact. Just ask the media entity who tracks it, MaxPreps: PHU has finished in the national Top 100 in eight of the past 10 yrs, according to MP, including wrapping at No. 8 nationally in 2019.
That’s the Top 100 out of what U.S News recently reported is nearly 24,000 high schools, nationally.
In a soccer hotbed that is brutally competitive — arguably more competitive than the first couple of rounds of the FHSAA state playoffs — the inaugural Champions League trophy may be as big as any other just short of a state championship piece of hardware.
On Wednesday, PHU’s girls (4-0-0) will take on a credible foe in Pinellas County — Shorecrest Prep (4-0-2) — an impressive private-school program from St. Pete that the Hurricanes would never typically have been able to face off against if not for the Champions League format. PHU and Shorecrest will both benefit from this matchup, and if you like soccer? You’ll see an impressive, high-level match. Shorecrest has been featured in two of the last Class 2A state title games.
The game is at PHU’s Hurricane Stadium on Wednesday (Dec. 7) at 6:30 pm.
“Nowadays you don’t even have to play your district games, it’s all determined by MaxPreps,” PHU head coach Randy Irick told PalmHarborSports.com. “We wouldn’t have played a high-level team like Shorecrest without this, and there’s a chance if we keep winning that we play a team like Land ‘O Lakes. It’s cool. It’s the who’s who when it comes to Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Pasco Counties.”
The whole Champions League brainchild comes from legendary high school and club coach Jim Harte. He implemented it with the boy’s teams first a few years back, and this will be the first go-around with the ladies. There are 16 school participants. Local district champions are invited first, and if the field is not filled at that point, they begin to go down the list of whose rankings were best to fill out the 16.
The 16 teams are divided into four “groups” as you would see in the European model of the Champions League, and you must survive your group — and the four group champs make the Tampa Bay Champions League semifinals on Saturday, Dec. 17.
So the Hurricanes have already took care of their most heated rival, East Lake. Tampa Plant withdrew late and left a void for the fourth group spot in Group 4 (as can be seen above in the graphic). If PHU’s ladies can knock off Shorecrest on Wednesday at home, the Hurricanes will advance to the Champions League semifinals on Saturday, Dec. 17 — and the winners of the semis advance to a championship kickoff that will take place later that day at St. Leo for the two HS winners.
A champion will be crowned by day’s end. PHU’s path is clearly lit, but it will clearly be challenging.
This PHU team is looking to snag this as an early Christmas present and as an example of what’s to come. Led by captains Crosby Nicholson (senior set to head to Kansas State to play Division I soccer), badass midfielder Payton Porter (54 career matches dating back to 2019), high-scoring junior Kassie Fragale (39 career goals in 42 matches), and hammer tough senior MF Morgan Little (60 career matches dating back to 2019) — the nucleus is here, and they’re just the beginning of this program.
“Skill-wise? We’re probably the best we’ve ever looked on paper,” Irick told PalmHarborSports.com. “But like we tell the girls, paper doesn’t win championships. Having a lot of talent doesn’t mean anything, either. The chemistry has to be there … we have unselfish girls who have proven that it’s not about themselves, but about the team and school.
“They make this easy. We could probably even field a second team that could win (Pinellas) county.”
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