The No. 1-ranked Spring Lake boys soccer team overcame the less-than-favorable conditions, and a tremendous opponent in Reeths-Puffer, to score a 4-0 win on Thursday, advancing to Saturday’s Division 2 district championship game against rival Fruitport.
The Lakers will play that game without the services of their head coach, Jeremy Thelen, who was red carded late in Thursday’s game for arguing with a referee after one of his players was hurt.
K.J. Sanchez scored a pair of early goals for the Lakers (20-0-1), propelling them to a win over the Rockets (13-6-1).
“We played them our second or third game of the season, and it was close,” Sanchez said of the Lakers’ 4-3 win on Aug. 27. “The early goals helped us a lot. Our effort was unbelievable. It’s been cold and rainy all day, but it couldn’t get any better than this.”
Getting off to a fast start was vitally important to the Lakers, according to Thelen, whose team beat Reeths-Puffer in a shootout in last year’s district tournament.
“Our conversation before the game was that the most important goal is the first one,” Thelen said. “Last year, when we played them in districts, they scored first, and it was a dogfight the whole game. Earlier in the season, they scored first, and we had a dogfight the whole game. We had to make sure we jumped on them first.”
The Rockets were obviously paying special attention to Lakers’ forward Riley Kammeraad, who has scored 39 goals this fall. That opened up some space for Sanchez, who missed a few games late in the season with an ankle injury. The Lakers’ senior took advantage.
Five minutes into the game, Sanchez took a pass from Adam Clauss and directed a hard shot on goal. The wet ball slipped through the grasp of Rockets’ goalie Troy Gilmpore and into the net for a 1-0 lead.
Ten minutes later, Sanchez scored again, this time after a scramble following a Lakers’ penalty kick.
With 16:57 remaining in the first half, Spring Lake’s Austin Gabris slid a fantastic pass to a wide open Kaleb Winter, and the Lakers’ senior made no mistake, burying a shot in the side netting for a 3-0 lead.
That lead stood up until the closing minutes, when Clauss was tripped in the Rockets’ penalty box. The Lakers’ team captain calmly stepped in and buried the PK for a 4-0 advantage.
Rockets’ coach Keith Knapp said the Lakers’ early goal was a back-breaker for his team.
“The wind and weather were so much of a factor, and we were hoping that with the wind at our back we might have a bit of an advantage in the first half, and be able to carry that into the second half,” Knapp said. “When that first one went through, it was kind of like getting kicked in the gut.
“They’re just a great team. You have to be perfect to beat them. They have so many weapons.
“They have so many players, not just their starters but guys on the bench, their touch, they move, their passing is perfect, and they come at you from so many different angles.
“But I’m proud of my boys. They played well.”
As the rain came down harder and harder in the second half and it became clear the Lakers would hold on for the win, tempers flared at times on the field. At one point, a Reeths-Puffer player slid into a Lakers’ player already on the ground. The play occurred right in front of Spring Lake’s bench, and Thelen took exception to what he felt as a dirty play as his player writhed on the ground in pain.
The referee first showed him a yellow card, then a red, which meant Thelen had to leave the facility and won’t be able to coach in Saturday’s showdown against Fruitport.
“It was a player safety issue,” Thelen said after the game.
The Lakers’ quick goal helped take the pressure of Spring Lake’s defense, and that unit played fantastic. Nic Ellingboe has moved back into the sweeper position, where he played during last year’s state finals run, adding some senior leadership to an already strong unit. Sophomore goalie Joe Czajka played perhaps his best game of the season as he came off his line to make several big stops throughout the game.
“I’m very proud of the zero on the other end,” Thelen said. “Czajka played awesome. This is the best I’ve seen him.”
Sanchez said the Lakers are pumped up for another showdown against the Trojans. Spring Lake beat Fruitport during the regular season, 1-0, then edged the Trojans in the Lakes Eight Conference tournament title game, 4-2.
“Fruitport always comes out and plays us tough,” Sanchez said. “They’re going to be a very difficult team to beat. It’s going to be a very physically demanding game. We played them in the conference finals, and now in the district finals. We’ll see how it goes.
“I think we’ll come out on top. We just need a few hard practices and to keep playing as a team.”