It is said that soccer is a game of inches — a roll either way could ripple into a butterfly effect of winning and losing. Not only did Thursday’s action at Cheney Alumni Field validate that expression but it proved the beautiful game could also be a game of nanoseconds.
All three remaining boys state tournament spots for the West Conference were clinched at the Class 4A West Regional, which ended elimination day on the most dramatic of notes.
Jackson and host Natrona County played through the first 80 minutes scoreless. Then came another 10 minutes without a breakthrough. Then came the intrigue.
Natrona County was shown a straight red 2 minutes into the final overtime period, forcing the defending state champions to play with 10 men. Even through that, the teams played even. Mustangs’ center midfielder Joey Antonovich made a blistering breakaway run only for his shot to be turned away by junior goalkeeper Archer Caulkins with 2 minutes remaining. Jackson then built possession, won a pair of corners and pulled it out.
“I did pick up my head right before he shot it and I knew it was in,” Jackson head coach Matt Hoelscher said. “I saw it hit the net and then zeroes, so I knew it crossed the line.”
A desperation Jackson shot amid a flurry of bodies went in almost simultaneous to the clock running out. Officials ruled it a goal and walked off the field. Jackson celebrated and the defending state champions were eliminated before they could even defend that title.
“We showed great heart, Natrona had great heart,” Hoelscher said. “That was just a good game. It’s a shame that not both of us get to qualify for state.”
Jackson learned its Friday opponent just before as 4A newcomer Star Valley made its dramatic debut at regionals with some big saves out of goalkeeper Alek Lawson. He was Star Valley’s starting goalkeeper during last year’s run to a 3A silver medal and provided multiple monumental stops throughout this season. He once again delivered on Thursday.
Last year’s 3A state finalist played through a soggy, sleety, scoreless 100 minutes with Evanston, which put the Braves and Lawson into a shootout for a state tournament berth with an Evanston side that had never qualified before.
“It was very stressful because at regionals and state, everybody ups their game and it’s incredible how much everybody improves over that week-long practice,” Lawson said. “It’s just super hard to compete so you’ve got to go out and play your game.”
Lawson stopped three of five shots he faced in the shootout and the Braves scored on their first three shots to win the shootout, 3-2. The senior keeper wouldn’t share his secrets on how to read opponents’ shooting placements, but he did admit he has his ways. He also admitted that even after gaining a 3-1 advantage, he still wasn’t comfortable.
A make by Evanston’s Pablo Escalante, followed by the Braves’ first miss, brought a sudden-death scenario for the Red Devils on their fourth shot. Lawson easily read the shot and made the stop. After tallying up the shooters, officials ruled Star Valley the winners and the Braves mobbed Lawson with their state tournament ticket in tow.
“I’m thinking it will definitely scare us into upping our game a little bit more,” he said. “It will definitely give us more motivation because we don’t want this to happen again.”
In a much less contentious fashion, Green River advanced into the semifinals and punched its ticket to state with a 5-0 win over Rock Springs.
Chase Stoeger netted two goals and the trio of Grant Cobb, Haden Counts and Nick Findlow each added a goal to give the Wolves a considerable first-half advantage. The Wolves were able to see through that result in the second half and clinch a spot at the expense of their rival. Green River had previously defeated and drew with Rock Springs to win the Sweetwater Cup this season. That added an extra weight to Thursday’s contest.
“Playing them first game in regionals and beating them, you can’t go wrong,” Green River head coach Chris Bieber said. “They played a great game and didn’t let anything in that second half and they made us work for everything we got.”
Last year’s West Conference champions moved on to play this year’s top seed, Kelly Walsh. That game will be the noon kickoff on Friday at Cheney Alumni Field.