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Tough tie

Duncan MacLean • Oct 10, 2018 at 12:15 AM

SPRING LAKE TWP. — Sometimes it takes a few bumps to sort out a promising team. Thursday’s O-K Blue Conference matchup between Spring Lake and Grand Rapids Catholic Central featured plenty of jarring contact.

The Spring Lake boys soccer team hasn’t lost in six games, including five straight wins leading into their 1-1 tie with No. 8 Catholic Central. While Tuesday’s result isn’t what they were hoping for, it is a far cry from their 2-5-4 start to the season.

“We obviously wanted to win, but we matched up with a team that is ranked in Division 3, so I’m pleased with our work,” said Spring Lake head coach Jeremy Thelen. “We lost to these guys the first time, so a 1-1 tie isn’t exactly what we wanted, but things are much better.

“We wanted to play head-to-head and not sit back and defend. Last game, we played four in the back and lost 1-0. This time, we went with three in the back to push more forward and take our chances. We wanted to be up in their faces and just work hard and I’m pleased with that. Every one of these guys is going to be a little sore and tired tomorrow.”

Tuesday’s game was electric with no love lost between the ranked Cougars and the keyed-up Lakers. With the budding rivalry and conference-title implications rode Senior Night celebrations for Spring Lake, making for high emotions from the start.

“It was a thrill the whole time,” said senior Eli Denslow. “You don’t want to get scored on, and you want to score. Lots of going back and forth, all you can do about it is play.”

A pair of yellow cards, one for each side, was dealt within the first five minutes of play, kicking off a raucous game.

Catholic Central served as the aggressors through the first 10 minutes, winning the midfield battle and forcing Spring Lake keeper Aidan Paker to make a few long saves early.

The Lakers wrestled back possession at the 30-minute mark, earning good chances for Malachi Mulder and Benjamin Bush, immediately flustering the Cougar back line into drawing their second yellow card of the game.

The final 15 minutes of the first half was eventful, as the Lakers were handed two cards of their own and both teams saw tantalizing chances at the net, with forwards dribbling through traffic in the box, only to be dismissed.

With one minute left to play before the break, Catholic Central drew a free kick just outside of the Spring Lake box. They would send it harmlessly into the Spring Lake wall, who booted the ball out of bounds to kill the half.

The second half started much like the first, with the Cougars lofting long, arcing shots into the hands of Paker. Apparently determined to calm the game a bit, Catholic Central took their time on every reset, meticulously setting up runs at the net.

Four chances weren’t enough in the first 10 minutes and eventually, the Lakers took back over. With just under 30 minutes left to play, Mulder jumped a Catholic Central clear, sending the ball booming 30-yards to a surprised Lukas Bronold. The senior gathered the ball and found a streaking Eli Denslow already jockeying for position with the Cougar sweeper.

The ball found its mark, and Denslow, along with his defender, found the keeper. The collision took out both Cougars and left Denslow stumbling toward the cage desperately trying to control the ball. Just feet from the goal line, the senior striker gathered himself and the ball, sending it home for a 1-0 lead.

The goal spurred Catholic Central’s aggression, and they took to the offensive end with reckless abandon.

Twice, expertly threaded through balls brought 1-on-1 opportunities for a Cougar forward and Paker. Twice, Paker scooped up the ball and took a hard hit. The second drew a Catholic Central red card with 17 minutes left to play, forcing Paker to leave the field for stopping play.

Three minutes later, with Paker installed back in goal, Catholic Central netted the equalizer, sending home a free kick via header.

Both teams saw dramatic chances through the final 10 minutes, showing off the prowess of their keepers. Catholic Central would take two more yellow cards as things heated up down the stretch, but couldn’t draw the game winner.

The effort was fitting for a tough class of seniors in their final regular season game at home. Seven of the Laker roster, including five starters and the first two off the bench, gave it their all Tuesday.

“Evan Ernst, Tyler VanDam, Jack Ogden, Charlie Parker, Lukas Bronold, Thomas Fine and Eli Denslow, every one of them are key players for us,” Thelen said. “They all work very hard.”

The leadership up top has been a huge part of the Lakers’ winning streak to end the season, as positivity and teamwork emerged from competitive flames.

“They are all awesome,” Denslow said of his classmates. “Positivity has been the difference with them this year. Last year, Charlie and I were a little bit negative. This year, we have been trying to be better leaders and stay positive and bring the team together. It has been huge.

“We play together now. We used to be scared to pass to each other, I think because we were afraid the other person would make a mistake. Now, we trust each other. We know everyone on the field is going to make the right decision and that has made a big difference.”

The tie leaves Spring Lake at 7-5-5 overall and 5-2-2 in conference. They conclude their regular season at Allendale on Thursday. A win there would earn them O-K Blue runner-up honors, behind Catholic Central.

Regardless of conference finish, the Lakers are scheduled to host the district tournament next week with Fruitport paying a visit for the opener Monday. The winner will play either Muskegon Reeths-Puffer or Fremont in the semifinals.

The seniors are more than ready for one more postseason chance on their home field.

“We have so many memories on this turf,” Denslow said. “One of the bad ones is losing to Reeths-Puffer in districts on penalty kicks in my sophomore year. We might get to see them here this year, so we are hoping to turn that around.”

Kickoff on Thursday is scheduled for 4 p.m. at Allendale High School.

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