Cool under pressure.
That’s what the Jonathan Alder boys soccer team is proving to be as it continued it’s magical carpet ride through the Division II Central District tournament Wednesday night.
The 12th seeded Pioneers (10-5-4) once again survived a gut-wrenching tournament contest, this time coming back from behind to knock off No. 10 Independence 3-2 in a shootout, advancing the school to it’s first-ever district championship.
For their efforts, Alder will square off with top seed and No. 1 state ranked St. Francis DeSales (17-0-1) in a D-II district title game Saturday at Dublin Jerome High School, starting at 2 p.m.
“At some point at the beginning of every season, we reference how we are the only banner in the gymnasium that does not have a district championship or runner-up on it,” Alder coach David Lanka said. “It has been a goal of our program since I started as assistant under Ivan Mast 10 years ago. This year marks the sixth time in my 10 years of coaching that we have made it to the district semifinal and finally, the boys earned it.
“It is especially sweet this year because after graduating 10 seniors last year, everybody wrote us off for the season. We definitely had some peaks and valleys throughout the season, but the team has come together and is playing some of its best soccer at the right time.”
This win just like the shootout win over Beechcroft a few days earlier was a contest that showed the fire and grit of the Pioneers squad. It also showed the Pioneers ability to switch things up when they’re not working.
Lanka and his staff changed the way the Pioneers were playing following the win over Beechcroft. The calculated gamble clearly paid off.
“After our match versus Beechcroft where we escaped with a win, we knew we had to change our formation and mindset,” the coach said. “In Beechcroft, we were frantic and chasing the game. We only had 41 percent possession and were out-shot 31-9. The coaching staff put together a game plan and the players bought in to the “defense first, counter-attack second” mindset.
“With only having two days for the guys to get mentally and physically prepared after Beechcroft, the players did a phenomenal job of absorbing our new formation and shift in defensive mindset. With the exception of a few defensive breakdowns, which are to be expected with only two days of training in a new system, the team played a great match defensively.”
On two separate occasions in the game vs. the 76ers, Alder trailed by a goal but it eventually got the equalizers from Peyton Ernst on a direct free kick from 30-yards out and on a 20-yard strike from Ethan Gordin after Independence was unable to clear the ball from its own end.
When the game remained tied through both extra sessions and into the shootout, the mental edge swung in favor of a Pioneers team comfortable with being in that situation.
“First and foremost, our confidence starts with our keeper, Braeden McGough,” the coach said. “With our coaches and players knowing he will be solid in goal, it takes some stress off the shooters that they don’t need to be perfect.
“In the shootout against Beechcroft, Braeden stopped all three penalty kick attempts. Before the Independence shootout, I told him that the odds of him saving all were not good and that he needs to treat each kick as a new one to save. We were fortunate that Independence hit two posts to miss (out of five).”
The shootout was tied 3-3 after the first five shots sending the match to a sudden-death shootout. Peyton Ernst who missed a shootout against Beechcroft connected on his attempt. Then McGough delivered his final save of the night, turning away a shot and sending the Pioneers to the district final.
The Pioneers will now get a very good DeSales team that knows how to win.
“Saying DeSales is ‘very good’ is like saying the sun is warm,” Lanka said. “DeSales’ program has been built into a dynasty by Coach (Domenic) Romanelli and his staff. He’s a phenomenal coach who gets the very best out of his players every year. This year is no different. While they have two of the best players in the state, their entire team is strong technically, tactically and mentally.
“They’ve been through it all and have won numerous state championships. Everyone knows this. In order for us to make a game out of it, we need to be composed and confident. We have nothing but respect for DeSales but we can’t play in awe of them. In our school’s history, we’ve played DeSales twice and lost 1-0 (2010 district semifinals) and 2-0 (2016 season). We’ve played them tough. We will need to be at our absolute best defensively, we will have to capitalize on our offensive chances, and Braeden will need to continue his solid play in goal. If any one of those things does not happen, DeSales will roll through us. That being said, our boys will be ready.“
Reach Chris Miles at 740-852-1616, ext. 1618 or via Twitter @MadPressSports.