Joe Czajka made all the routine saves in Thursday’s Division 2 regional championship game against Forest Hills Northern, and even had a few spectacular stops.
But in the closing minutes of Thursday’s contest, Czjaka found himself helplessly watching as the ball skip past him on the wet turf toward the corner of his goal.
Fortunately, the ball sailed wide, and the Lakers’ keeper was able to breath a huge sigh of relief.
Minutes later, Czajka was leaping into the arms of his teammates, the hero of Spring Lake’s 1-0 win over Forest Hills Northern. The victory wrapped up the Lakers’ second regional crown in three years.
“That last one, the one that just skipped past the post, that one really made my heart drop,” the Lakers’ junior goalkeeper said. “I knew I had to (shut them out) to give us a good chance. This feels really good, especially after last year, losing in the regional finals. Just to touch that trophy was great.”
With the win, the Lakers advance to Wednesday’s Division 2 state semifinals at Plainwell High School. Spring Lake will face Sturgis, a 4-0 winner over Milan in their regional title game. That game is scheduled for 6 p.m.
“If you would have told me at the beginning of the season, this team would be regional champions and in the final four, I would have laughed at you,” admitted Lakers’ coach Jeremy Thelen, whose team returned just three starters from last year’s squad. “But now, as we get more confidence, more strength, more fight to us, this group can do a lot of things. I’m really proud of this group.”
“The last two games, and even the shootout against Fruitport, he’s been amazing. He’s really kept us in games. He kept balls from going out of bounds that would have been corner kicks. Joe deserves a lot of credit for this.”
It took a phenomenal defensive effort to keep Forest Hills Northern off the board, especially since Spring Lake wasn’t able to generate much at all on the offensive end.
The Lakers managed only two dangerous scoring chances, both by Nic Ellingboe. The senior striker capitalized on the first as he scored the game’s only goal 20 minutes in. Teammate Alec Palmer made a great move to get free from a Huskies’ defender on the left sideline and floated a pass across the middle. Ellingboe sprang into the air and hit a header past keeper Dante Compean for a 1-0 lead.
Ellingboe had a chance to give his team some breathing room with 5:45 remaining in the contest when the Huskies’ defense misplayed a ball in the back. Ellingboe chased down the loose ball, juked past Compean and had an open goal in front of him, but hit a shot just wide left.