Heat seekers

Duncan MacLean • May 30, 2018 at 12:33 AM

SPRING LAKE TWP. — Playoff openers bring with them plenty of nerves. The extra emotion of the first elimination game of the year can compromise even the most stalwart teams. Add to that extreme heat and two game-time delays and anything can happen.

All the distractions added up to a slow start for the Spring Lake girls soccer team, but strong defense plus a deep breath at halftime equaled a ballistic second half, powering them to a 3-0 victory over Reeths-Puffer on Tuesday in the opening round of the Division 2 district tournament.

At the scheduled kickoff time of 6 p.m., the air at Spring Lake High School registered well above 90 degrees, while the ambient temperature on the soccer field turf sat at a sweltering 120 degrees, delaying the game until things cooled off.

Once playable conditions resumed, a third official had to be recruited before the game could begin. With the referee communication website down for maintenance, Spring Lake called in a favor as Fruitport athletic director and seasoned soccer referee Ken Erny crossed town to save the day.

With cooler temperatures and a full officiating crew assembled, the district tournament began just over an hour after its scheduled start time.

The Lakers immediately jumped in the driver’s seat, controlling possession with fierce midfield play, but the ball time didn’t amount to any first-half goals as a seemingly frantic attack failed to finish in the final third of the field.

“We tend to match our opponents play a little bit,” said Spring Lake head coach Becky May. “My passers, my seam finders, my connectors, they weren’t connecting. We were trying to connect on some passes that we don’t have.”

Tied 0-0 at halftime, Spring Lake refocused and doubled down on their possession game. Inspired by a rock-solid defensive effort, the Laker midfielders and forwards calmed their feet and started hitting their passes.

“What you saw today was a year’s worth of work coming together in one game,” May said of her defense. “They were incredible. They gave the mids the confidence to hold the ball a little bit longer. When the game started, everyone was a little hyper. They would get the ball on their feet and go hard and give it up right away. When the defense shows that it’s all right if we miss, that we can catch up, then the mids relax and pick their heads up and it all comes together. It started with the defense today.

“The good news is we have halftime to talk about all that.”

With 25:28 left to play, sophomore Phoebe Saunders lit the scoreboard, volleying home an assist from Emily Batts to break the tie.

The goal took the final edge off Spring Lake’s game. Just three minutes later, they netted a perfectly executed free kick set piece, sending the ball into the box to Batts, who one-timed it back to a charging Laney Peasley for a high-velocity goal, sending the team and the Laker faithful into a frenzy.

“We have worked on a free kick play for a while and haven’t scored on it,” May said. “To connect on that play, which they love doing, and to do it so well was icing on the cake. It was a sweet play.

The Rockets fought hard to even the score, but couldn’t get anything past the Laker backline. A few desperate kick-and-run attempts made it back to keeper Kamryn Lewkowski, who calmly preserved the shutout.

With six minutes left to play, Peasley put the victory on some much-needed ice, finishing a cool through ball by Saunders to take a 3-0 lead.

“I wasn’t too concerned at halftime, simply because we have done well in the second half all year,” May said. “I told the girls, ‘Just trust yourselves and what you can do. It will come.’ Now, I didn’t think it would come by three goals, but I was confident we would find our game. We always do.”

The victory earns the Lakers a spot in the district semifinals against a high-flying Kenowa Hills team, who picked up just their second victory of the season over Sparta in the district opener, 2-0. That game will play out at Fruitport High School on Thursday at 3 p.m.

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