The Lakers took a 3-0 victory over the Bulldogs at Holland Christian High School, playing without star midfielder Keara Fritsche (ankle) and with belabored play from forwards Emily Batts (hamstring) and Laney Peasley (ribs), as well as midfielder Phoebe Saunders (back).
Images from Tuesday’s match
The biggest hit to the Spring Lake lineup came for Kate Gilchrist, who lost her grandfather, who also served as the Lakers’ PA announcer, to a sudden heart attack this week. Gilchrist responded with a stellar game, filling her role as the Lakers’ midfield bruiser to perfection.
“It was very hard for all of us. It is devastating. We are heartbroken, all of us,” Spring Lake head coach Becky May said. “Kate played her heart out today. We are very proud of her and so thankful that we have her.
“We have had a great year and he was a part of it. He was our voice and was always so enthusiastic and made us smile before every game. At halftime, our cheer is always family, and that gave us perspective today. Win or lose we have each other, we are all going home on the same bus.”
All the emotion made for a scattered first half, as Spring Lake struggled to find their rhythm on offense. While technically outperforming the Bulldogs, the final touches in their offensive third were hard to nail down.
All the while, Gilchrist and the Laker backline held strong, keeping Byron Center to one a quality shot on cage for the entire contest.
Second half adjustments have been a strength for Spring Lake all season, and they used them to net three goals in the final 40 minutes to race into the regional finals.
Batts, Saunders and Taylor Colquitt found the net for the Lakers, with assists coming from Tia Leary and Saunders.
“We were clearly nervous when we started,” May said. “Our touch wasn’t good. We were spraying the ball around. Once we get that first touch down and get two good passes in a row, everyone settles down and we start to play our game.
“I told them at halftime, ‘Keep doing what you are doing. We are knocking at the door. One is going to go and we just need one.’ We kept at it and had better touches in the second half like we have all year long.
“My defender is hurting, Emily is in a lot of pain, Phoebe hurt her back. It is going to be day-by-day for us. I’m asking a lot of them. They are learning the difference of injury and pain. You can play through pain. We will just put them in an ice bath, get them a massage and hope they can go 80 minutes for the next game. That is how you play soccer this time of year, hurting.”
“Honestly, I came out really slow. I wasn’t into the game,” Batts said of the first half. “At halftime, our assistant coach, Rachel Hooker, pulled me aside and said, 'Look, you need to get your head in the game. This could potentially be your last game ever.' After that sunk in, I started to realize that this could be my last game, so I really picked it up in the second half.
"It was definitely mind over matter at that point. When we got that first goal, all the pain and stress was instantly gone, because then we could play with a little more composure.”
Byron Center took the game’s first stabs at possession, controlling the ball in the midfield for the opening three minutes of the contest with no results.
Spring Lake then took over, slowly working the ball closer and closer to the box, while the Bulldogs repeatedly cleared scattered passes out to the sideline.
Patience nearly paid off with 31 minutes left in the half as Batts let loose a cross-cage shot from inside the box, clanging the ball off the far post. Batts managed another chance with 28 minutes left, sending a high lob drifting toward the crossbar, where the Byron Center keeper barely met it with a fist.
The Lakers continued to dominate time of possession, putting superior ball handling skill on display, while their passing continued to suffer. With just under 21 minutes left in the half they sent three shots toward the Bulldog cage in rapid succession, each narrowly missing their mark.
With 6:00 left in the half, the game’s physicality escalated as Batts was sent to the sideline with a bloody leg following a collision and the Bulldogs grew frustrated with Gilchrist’s ownership of midfield.
It all amounted to a scoreless halftime break.
The second half was all Spring Lake. Fifty-four seconds into the half, they tallied their first goal.
Leary collected the ball along the sideline, schooling her defender with a reverse nutmeg dribble before passing the ball off to Saunders, who was streaking into the box. The sophomore weaved through traffic and ripped a groundstroke past a diving Byron Center goalie, celebrating with a relieved group hug.
With 27:49 left to play, Colquitt showcased her speed taking a ball from midfield all the way into the box, blowing through multiple defenders as she angled inside for her unassisted goal.
From there, the Lakers started peppering the Bulldog cage with shots, placing two on target in the 25th minute, earning a corner with 22 minutes to play, and finally netting their third goal with 18:43 left as Saunders lifted a clean pass over the Byron Center backline, meeting Batts on an expertly timed run up the middle.
The Bulldogs upped the pressure through the final 10 minutes, drawing a fruitless corner kick before clanging a shot off the post following a Spring Lake handball, all for nothing.
The victory sets up a rematch from last year’s regional finals between Spring Lake and Forest Hills Northern (16-5) after they defeated Middleville Thornapple Kellogg (12-6-2) by a score of 3-1.
The Huskies defeated the Lakers in last year’s matchup, 1-0, with a goal in the final 30 seconds of play to steal the regional crown, moving on to finish runner-up overall.
Both teams graduated productive stars from their 2017 rosters, setting up a wide-open rematch.
“It will be a crazy game,” May said. “They are good. We lost an All-State sweeper and I am starting a freshman and sophomore on a back line against an experience team that is used to winning. Everybody remembers last year, but they want to keep playing soccer. ‘One more game,’ they keep saying. As long as we have that, we will be tough to beat.”
“We’re just going to go out and play our game,” Batts said. “We just want to play with composure and keep possession. We’re excited to get another chance to play for a regional championship and are playing with a lot of confidence right now
“They are a really talented team, so we’ll have to keep the pressure on them the whole game.”
Kickoff on Friday is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Holland Christian High School.