Just 77 seconds away from going to overtime, the Sturgis boys soccer season abruptly ran out of time.
Amid the congestion in front of the net, Spring Lake’s Nic Ellingboe got his foot on a rebound and bounced in the game-winning goal at Wednesday’s Division 2 state semifinals at Plainwell High School.
“Bad bounce at a bad time,” Trojans junior forward Eric Patino said of the 2-1 defeat.
That bounce sent Sturgis home and Spring Lake to its second state finals game in three years, where it will take on fourth-ranked East Lansing, which beat St. Clair Shores Lake Shore, 1-0, in the other semifinal match.
Sturgis (16-7-1), which made history this season with its first regional championship, got out to a 1-0 lead with Junuhel Rubio’s goal with 19 minutes remaining in the first half. The junior attacker split a pair of Lakers defenders and angled a shot past outstretched goalkeeper Joe Czajka.
The Trojans appeared to have the upper hand for most of the first half, spending more time in Spring Lake (15-6-3) territory than defending Lakers advances. But it was another free-for-all goal near the end of the opening 40 minutes that tied the game for Spring Lake. After Sturgis keeper Isaac Montoya blocked the initial shot, Spring Lake’s Kendall Kaden deposited the rebound into the back of the net with 2:48 on the clock.
The tying goal seemed to give Spring Lake some momentum in the second half, when roles were reversed and the Lakers, if only barely, dictated the flow. Sturgis had its opportunities down the stretch, but no real quality looks.
“It’s very, very hard to swallow,” Sturgis coach Luis Olivares said. “Both teams were fighting for the game. It could have been either team. What can you say? We lost control of the ball a little bit [in the second half]. I told my guys, ‘We need to have possession of the ball the way we had all season.’”
Still, the sting of sudden defeat didn’t prevent Olivares and his players from recognizing what the program had accomplished.
“It was very, very special, especially for our seniors,” Olivares said. “They wanted to go to the end. To be here in the last four, everything is good. We lost today to a good Spring Lake team.”
Olivares knew he had the talent to compete with the state’s best. What wasn’t so clear was whether his players had the chemistry necessary for postseason success.
“We struggled [with that] in the beginning of the season and the middle of the season,” he said. The bonding of the team [after that] was fantastic. That was my goal with this team: to have that bonding together with the relationships between the players. That was the big difference. I knew they were good players. But without that sometimes you won’t win.
“To tell you the truth, in the middle of the season [I wasn’t so sure it would happen]. I did a lot of talking to them — I did a lot of talking. I knew that at some point along the way they would get it, and they did. I’m very, very proud of our boys.”
Seniors Jose Soto, Enrique Lopez, Carlos Maldonado, Jonathan Gonzalez, Jose Arias, Gustavo Garcia, Alexander Castro, Isaiah Rooyakkers and Gabriel Nieves will certainly be difficult to replace next season, but Patino is excited to keep adding to what the Trojans built this year.
Along with Patino, fellow juniors Isaac Montoya, Jesus Becerril, Gerardo Ortega, Luis Munoz, Rubio and Giovanni Arroyo return in 2013. Sophomores Gustavo Santana and Adolfo Patino, and freshmen Omar Perez, Pavel Garcia, Fabian Lopez, Josue Gonzalez and Alejandro Cancino gained valuable experience during the team’s playoff run.
“I’m pretty excited,” Eric Patino said. “We’ve got young kids moving up and we’ve got some pretty good players. I’ll be right there in the middle. I’m going to be captain and this [game] is a lesson.”
“It’s not going to stop,” Olivares added. “They see what they can do. They just need to play as a team — united as one.”