Surging Green River successfully knocked off No. 1 Kelly Walsh, 1-0, for its fourth win in a month on Friday afternoon. In most cases, that would make the Wolves the true underdog in the upcoming Class 4A Regional Championship. That is, until the other semifinal was played.
Class 4A newcomer Star Valley stunned Jackson with two goals in 2 minutes midway through the first half at Cheney Alumni Field and the Braves held on to win 3-0. That means Saturday’s title match will come down to the defending regional champions and the newest face in the crowd.
Star Valley may enter that title match as the undisputed underdog. Not only is this the Braves’ first year in 4A since 2011 and their win on Thursday came in a shootout, but the Braves went ahead in Friday’s semifinal with a controversial call. Junior Chase Merrell sent a high shot toward net in the 17th minute that Jackson goalkeeper Archer Caulkins bobbled. The ball bounced on the ground before Caulkins dove on it and the officials ruled the ball went over the goal line. Jackson head coach Matt Hoelscher ran onto the field and asked for an explanation while on the way to tend to Caulkins, who remained on the turf, and ultimately was handed a yellow card.
Merrell added another, more straight-forward, goal less than 2 minutes later. Senior Gerson Lozano sent a free kick to the far post that Merrell easily headed into the back of the net, giving the Braves all the momentum before the 20-minute mark.
“That first one I kind of got lucky,” the junior said. “It wasn’t the greatest shot but it went in. Then the second one I just used my height.”
The Braves added to that tally even further when Lozano sent a through ball into the box that sophomore Brant Nelson directed just inside the far post with a slide in the 34th minute.
Jackson is still responsible for Star Valley’s last loss (April 12). But coupled with a 3-2 win over the Broncs last week, this is the first time the Braves won consecutive games over Jackson. And, in all the years of the rivalry’s history, Star Valley had never won by more than a single goal before Saturday.
So, are they still the underdog?
“I don’t know,” Merrell smiled. “I think we’re doing well so we’ll keep it that way.”
Green River, meanwhile, goes into Saturday as the unconventional returning regional champion. Following consecutive 4-0 losses, Green River head coach Chris Bieber altered the Wolves’ formation. That involved swapping the starting lineup and moving players into different positions — nearly wholesale changes to a side that struggled going into the season’s most crucial point.
The Wolves answered immediately by beating Natrona County on the road to end the regular season. That momentum followed with a convincing 5-0 win over Rock Springs on Thursday before beating Kelly Walsh, which was responsible for the latter of the Wolves’ transformative 4-0 losses.
“The boys truly enjoy this formation, they’re happy and they’re having fun,” Bieber said. “They’ve scored 11 goals in three games in this formation with three wins.”
Friday’s win was the closest of those three, however. Through a fairly even initial 20 minutes, Green River pulled ahead with a flick-in goal from senior Chase Stoeger. The set-piece-scoring center back received a touch pass from teammate Haden Counts in order to beat the keeper in the 22nd minute.
“It’s good to have games like this going into the state tournament,” Stoeger said. “It makes you better all the way up until the end.”
That goal stood as the difference even as Kelly Walsh’s possession became more frantic and urgent. That energy occasionally hurt the Trojans as promising possessions fizzled out with errant passes and well-timed defensive clearances. Green River’s midfield and back line was up to the task of clearing chances through the middle most of the time.
Then there were the missed opportunities that left the Trojans bewildered. A long-distance rocket sailed off the crossbar and down back into play, only for goalkeeper Gage Richardson to hop onto it before Kelly Walsh’s Cody Redmond could finish the rebound. That was followed by a free kick that sailed just above the crossbar. Then a beautiful build ended with a header by Jackson Catchpole that sailed just above the bar with 3 minutes left.
Through all of those attempts and numerous more that were sought out before they became dangerous, the Wolves stood their ground and held on for the upset.
“(Kelly Walsh) did really well, pushing our defense to the greatest extent they could possibly push,” Bieber said. “But it was great to hear that buzzer and have that win.”