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Taking the plunge

Taking the plunge

Laredo enters Southern Conference semifinals vs. unknown in Austin tonight

By Adam Geigerman
Laredo Morning Times

Tonight marks the initiation of the Laredo Heat’s reclamation project.

Their run of four consecutive Mid-South Division championships was stolen from them by the Austin Aztex, but the Heat still have a chance to seize the supremacy they missed by seven regular-season points when they play the first match of the Southern Conference Championship semifinals at House Park in Austin at 5 p.m.

Laredo faces the Ocala Stampede on Friday as the Southern Conference scenario sets the top two sides from the Mid-South and the Southeastern Divisions — with the Austin Aztex (11-1-2, 35 points) and Heat (8-2-4, 28 points) representing the Mid-South and the Stampede (11-3-0, 33 points) and Panama City Beach Pirates (10-30-1, 31 points) coming in from the Southeastern — against each other in a pair of No. 1 versus No. 2 matchups.

Each division’s regular season champion (Austin, Ocala) will face the opposite division’s second-place team (Panama City Beach, Laredo) in a semifinal doubleheader.

The two winners from Friday’s semifinals will face off in the Southern Conference final on Saturday, also in Austin, for the chance to compete in the PDL’s Final Four and, eventually, a national championship.

Since becoming postseason eligible in 2005, Laredo has qualified for the conference semifinals every year.

Beyond that, the Heat have seesawed by advancing to four national championship games — winning it all in 2007 — but also falling in the conference championships four times.

Most recently, the Heat were sent home in the conference semifinal a year ago by Orlando City in a 2-1 dispatching.

In 2011, Laredo fell to the Kitsap Pumas — a fully professional team playing in the mostly semi-pro Premier Development League — by a 1-0 scoreline.

In its only national championship, Laredo defeated the Michigan Bucks 4-3 in a penalty kick shootout after a scoreless 120 minutes of regular and extra time.

The Heat face a relatively unknown opponent in the Stampede.

The sides have never met on the pitch and stack up similarly in many ways, begininng with the team’s two backstops.

Laredo veteran goalkeeper Emmanuel Frias ranks in the top 10 in five of the PDL’s major statistical categories — including minutes played (1,239 minutes, 4th), wins in goal (8, tied for 3rd), shutouts (6, tied for 3rd), games played (14, tied for 1st) and goals allowed average (0.944, 7th). The Texas A&M International alumnus played all but 21 minutes in the net for Laredo.

Matching up against Frias, Ocala’s Alexander Bolowich has posted noteworthy numbers but because he has played only 720 minutes this season, and not the requisite 750 minutes by league standards, he is not ranked tops in the league.

Desptite that, Bolowich played eight matches for Ocala with a 0.875 GAA while coming away with six victories and five cleansheets. He saved 29 of 36 shots on frame.

Ocala played a pair of other keepers, Lex Craggs and Scott Sotarik, but their numbers stand much less intimidating.

Over three games and 270 minutes on the pitch, Craggs allowed five shots past him while going 2-1 with no shutouts.

Sotarik had a rougher run of luck, allowing three goals in just two matches and a mere 180 minutes of action.

With Laredo carrying a solid advantage in its net, the Stampede are certainly stocked in more offensive areas.

Ocala boasts a trio of snipers with six or more goals and seven players that are confident enough to have shot more than 10 times this season.

Forwards Jack Bailey and Kenneth Hogg enter tonight’s match with a team-leading eight goals apiece, while Kyle Breitmeyer is a close third with six.

After them, only Rafael Alves (4) William Tice (3) and Corey Maret (2) have score more than once.

The Stampede have six others that have bulged the net once, but a team total 22 assists spread across 10 different players should offer enough of a threat to Laredo’s backline and Frias.

The Stampede have lived up to their name by utterly stampeding the Southeast Division.

Ocala is carrying a plus-24 goal differential, while the second-place Panama City Beach Pirates are only at plus-9 — behind the third and fourth place finishing Orlando City II (+13) and VSI Tampa Bay (+12).

That breaks down to mean that Ocala scored at least 11 more goals than anyone else it competed against.

It recorded more than three goals in eight of 14 matches this season, including a 7-0 result on June 22 and a 5-1 result a week later on June 29. It was shutout only once.

As a complement to that offensive arsenal, Ocala only allowed more than one goal to its opposition in five matches.

Ocala’s three losses this season all came on Fridays but the Stampede have won six of seven road games.

The Heat offer their own dangers in the final third, begininng with United High alumnus Daniel Garza and his team-leading seven goals. Behind Garza, Laredo captain Juan de Dios Ibarra and Brazilian backliner Felipe de Souza each have four goals.

Nine others have three goals or fewer for Laredo, with veteran midfielder Greg Mulamba’s lone goal of the season — coming in the Heat’s playoff clinching victory over El Paso last week — earning him a recognition as a member of the PDL Team of the Week, announced Thursday.

De Souza was named as a honorable mention.

Laredo went 2-3-2 on the road this season, scoring a plus-2 differential while posting a pair of cleansheets when playing away from the TAMIU Soccer Complex.

It only played one match — a 1-0 defeat — in Austin, a pitch made of artificial turf.

Tonight’s match will be live streamed online at http://www.uslnation.com/pdl/index_dynamic.aspx, begininning at 5 p.m.