District soccer: Sunlake, River Ridge slide into 3A-8 final
LAND O' LAKES - Not without some prolonged periods of frustration, top seeds Sunlake and River Ridge advanced to the finals of the Class 3A, District 8 tournament Wednesday. Sunlake (25-1-2) got past defense-minded Fivay 2-0 after the Royal Knights slipped by Gulf 1-0.
Sunlake, going after a sixth straight district title and fourth consecutive trip to the state semis, will host River Ridge Friday at 7 p.m.
River Ridge (16-3) didn't have a tie all season, so naturally it looked like the Knights would be heading to overtime against Gulf. But with less than five minutes remaining, defender Parker Engh got loose on the left side of the penalty box, cut back to his right to lose two pursuers, and rocketed in a ball that took a slight deflection into the roof of the net.
"I didn't play up to my standards in the first half, so I felt obligated to come up and try to make something happen," Engh said. "But it was a team effort. I just happened to be there; it could have been anyone."
In the game's first 10 minutes it seemed like any one of a handful of Grade A chances would go in, with Knights midfielder John Bomhardt sending in two great long balls to onrushing forwards. But River Ridge continued to shoot wide.
River Ridge's frustration hit a peak in the 22nd minute when Casey LaRosa put one off the post. Sebastian Salkic nearly put a gaining-steam Gulf (11-7-1) on the board when he expertly headed a ball down, but it bounced up and barely over the crossbar.
"We talked about it before the game: score early. If you don't, you give (Gulf) confidence as the game wears on," said Knights coach Mike McHugh. "Give Gulf credit, they played well. But we played poorly, especially in the first half. When we don't finish, we're average."
The game took on an added intensity in the second 40 minutes, with Gulf diminutive duo Salkic and Roberto Ribic creating threats. River Ridge defenders Garyn Pieterse and freshman Sean Martin had to come up with some big clearances.
Sunlake was flustered by a bunkered-down Fivay (12-9-3), which got some great clearances from Blake Vanek in the first half, where the Seahawks collect four yellow cards.
But an unrelenting effort by Tariq Michael paid off in the 45th minute. Sabi Restrepo's pass sent Michael into the penalty box, and as he looked ready to charge on goal Michael reversed field and dropped a pass that Restrepo one-timed for his 26th goal.
Michael doubled the lead seven minutes later on a penalty kick, but sophomore Nathan Oparka can claim substantial credit for Michael's 37th as Oparka's brilliant maneuvering led to him getting fouled.
Sunlake coach Sam Koleduk said Restrepo, who controlled play throughout, almost didn't suit up due to being sick. Even when Sunlake fell a man short for the final half hour, the Seahawks enjoyed the big majority of scoring chances.
The teams combined for nine yellow cards.
River Ridge is in the playoffs for a fifth straight year, having won a regional contest last season. Having lost 3-2 and 2-0 to Sunlake earlier, the Knights hope to make the Seahawks work for what Sunlake expects is another district title.
"We can compete with them. We've done it twice this year. But Sunlake still has that aura," McHugh said