For 79 minutes and 37 seconds, it seemed like the Spring Lake girls soccer team had the upper hand on No. 2 Forest Hills Northern in the Division 2 regional final match at Cedar Springs High School.
Then, one bounce of the ball and a shot from the Huskies’ All-State midfielder Natalie Belsit, and the Lakers found themselves down 1-0 with less than 30 seconds to do anything about it.
Spring Lake would launch a kick toward the Forest Hills Northern net, but a scrum for the ball and clear by the Huskies’ backline would clinch the dramatic win and push Forest Hills Northern back to the Division 2 semifinals on Tuesday at Grand Rapids Christian High School.
“This season has been the best experience of my soccer career,” said senior Sarah Thornley. “It’s tough for us seniors to go out like this, because we’ve been playing together for the past 10 years, and it’s a sad way for it to end. We played our best, and I’m happy with how we played, but it’s unfortunate that they got one in the last 30 seconds of the game like that. That’s how it goes sometimes, though.”
Spring Lake head coach Becky May thought her squad outplayed the opposition, but relaxed for a second when they could ill-afford to do so.
“I don’t think they won that half; I think we outplayed them the whole game, actually,” she said. “But, when you play a team like that and make one mistake, they make you pay.
“Their whole team is a quality team, but they in no way beat us. We lost today, but they did not beat us. I’m happy with the way we fought. It’s tough, because you push, push and push all game, and you let up for one second and you are done.”
Despite being the perceived underdogs in the match, Spring Lake didn’t play anything like it. The Lakers won countless collisions for the ball, with sophomore forward Laney Peasley and junior forward Emily Batts sacrificing life and limb just for a chance at putting their team in a position to score.
“I think we were evenly matched, physically,” May added. “They probably had a little more size and speed on us, but you just correct that with good positioning, playing the ball and playing smart.
“My little stopper, Kate (Gilchrist), just did everything I asked her to do. She knew her girl had a foot on her, so I told her to just get a foot on it, get between them and do the best you can to distribute the ball, and she did very well. I’m proud of her.”
Thornley thought the whole team proved themselves with their effort Thursday.
“I think they came into the game with more confidence than we did,” she said. “They are ranked No. 2 in the state, so they probably thought they would beat us pretty easily, but we really stepped up our game and made it difficult on them. I think we proved ourselves against one of the best teams in the state, and showed that we can dominate possession against anybody.
“We had more chances than them in the second half, but it just didn’t turn out how we’d hoped it would go.”
The Lakers fell short of making their second state semifinals appearance in program history (last in 2013), but their recent run of making regional appearances shows that the program is here to stay.
“It’s awesome. It shows how strong our program is getting that we’re constantly playing in the regionals,” Thornley continued. “We made it to the regional finals my sophomore year, so to get back there was a nice accomplishment. Spring Lake has only made the regional finals a few times before this, so it’s awesome that we made it this far.
“I think you’ll see big things from Spring Lake soccer in the future.”
The Lakers will have to replace the senior leadership of players like Kaley George, Jaedyn Shelton, Becca Rush, Gen Cossey and Sarah and Grace Thornley, but with a slew of talented underclassmen already making key contributions and an incoming junior varsity squad that ran circles around the competition, it’s easy to see why May is confident in the future of the program.
“We’ve got a bright future,” she continued. “We lost one senior to an ACL injury, so we have five players who played a lot that we are losing, but we have rotated in the young girls over the year, so it will be no adjustment at all for them to take over the team.
“I also have a junior varsity team that finished 17-0 with 96 goals scored and two against. I got that crew coming up, which is nice to look forward to.”