LITHIA — Having allowed three goals in a nine-minute span in the second half of the region semifinal against Steinbrenner, nearly letting the game slip through its fingers, East Lake was in desperate need of a change.
So before taking on Newsome in Friday’s 5A region final, coach Alex Stenson refocused his team by switching up perhaps the most important position on the field.
“I did change my goalkeeper, which was probably not the smartest thing to do, to be honest,” Stenson said. “I just felt we were getting a little complacent, so I wanted to make sure our defenders were awake. When you change the goalkeeper behind them, suddenly there’s a bit more focus and concentration.”
With Jeff Richmond in goal for the Eagles, the risk paid off, and East Lake survived the defensive battle with the Wolves to win 1-0.
Newsome was aggressive from the start, but a change in the midfield, defender Daniel Mahler said, gave the Eagles (17-2-1) some life, and for the rest of the first half, East Lake controlled the game.
The Eagles outshot Newsome 5-1 before finally getting on the board in the 38th minute, when Pierre Goris took a cross and slipped the ball past Newsome (17-6-1) goalkeeper Nate Hodges.
In the second half, Newsome came out with a vengeance, peppering the goal with shots, searching for the equalizer. The Wolves had their best chance to tie it up in the 77th minute, when forward Eric Lint was tripped in the box and Newsome was awarded a penalty kick.
Just like their other chances in the second half, though, it didn’t quite pan out. Jake Van Der Luit took the penalty kick, but it bounced off the crossbar and out.
Stenson was pleased with how his defense responded from the scare against Steinbrenner. Josh Page may lead East Lake with 30 goals, but Stenson was quick to single out the Eagles’ most valuable player.
“Our player of the year has been Daniel Mahler. He’s just been outstanding,” Stenson said. “He kept us in, and he cleared the ball really, really well. When he’s there, I get kind of comfortable.”
In the final three, Mahler and the rest of the East Lake defense were challenged more than they had been the entire game. Newsome, which had two corner kicks in the final minute, tried desperately to tie, to no avail.
Mahler said he couldn’t find the words to describe just how nervous he was when the Wolves were attacking. What leaves him even more speechless, though, is the fact that they survived it.
“I can’t describe it,” Mahler said about the Eagles’ state final four berth. “I’m just excited.”