ADRIAN — The last few years, the Lenawee Christian boys soccer team, despite some solid offensive firepower in the presence of Zach Riordan, fell short of their goal of making the Division 4 quarterfinals, falling in either the district rounds (2015, 2016, 2017) or the regional rounds in 2018 and 2019.
According to Cougars coach Nate Sharpe, the teams then were missing a key that this iteration of the LCS boys squad has found as it prepares for its regional final game Friday night against Hillsdale Academy up at Lansing Christian School.
“It’s been two years since we’ve been (in a regional final), and both years with those groups of seniors, we didn’t have team belief that we could make it beyond that point,” said Sharpe. “Belief is something we’ve talked about throughout the year, like ‘you guys have to believe you belong, you have to believe you’re one of the top teams in the state’, and I feel like that’s fueling us right now.”
Another advantage that Lenawee Christian, which enters Friday night’s chance to make the quarterfinals with a 13-2-1 overall record, has now is that, without Riordan, the Cougars have been able to spread the wealth offensively.
That means that Hillsdale Academy will not be able to do what other teams in the past did to LCS when it reached this stage of the tournament: key in on one player defensively, mark them with multiple players and effectively shut down the Cougar offense by taking away one player.
“We really worked to give people green lights (to shoot), like if you have an opportunity, to take it. We had a conversation with one of our guys tonight like that. Like ‘hey, you need to be confident to step up and hit. That was a good area to do it and instead were looking to defer. Take your chance. You can do this.’, so it has been kind of a year long process, and some guys have adapted to it a little bit quicker and others are still coming along for the ride,” said Sharpe, “but it’s absolutely been a benefit to know that multiple guys can have big nights for us, and find the person that’s having the big night and feed them, and if they get shut down, we move it to someone else, so its absolutely a huge advantage.”
In various games this season, Lenawee Christian’s offense has been able to flow through a multitude of players including Gabe Henley, Francisco Cabrera, Brennan Griffith and Zeke Clymer. Cabrera, Griffith and Clymer proved instrumental in getting LCS in position for a regional crown in Tuesday’s 4-1 victory over Kalamazoo Christian, a game in which the Cougars fell behind early, but showed resilience to score four unanswered and give themselves a shot at a regional title with Griffith scoring twice and Cabrera and Clymer each finding the back of the net once.
“The other night, we go down and give up a goal in the first minute to Kalamazoo Christian, and in years past I think that would’ve been pretty devastating to us, even though we had the offensive firepower to go back and get it,” said Sharpe, “and this year the group marched right down and within two minutes of giving up that goal, we scored one to tie it up. This team believes, and now we have to bring the amount of work and passion that it is gonna take to bring it home.”
However, that advantage of having multiple weapons instead of one big gun, that at this stage could catch a prospective regional final opponent off guard, is something that this Hillsdale Academy squad will have seen before.
The Lenawee Christian and Hillsdale Academy teams squared off in Independent Soccer League play earlier this fall back on Sept. 21, with the Cougars getting the better of the Colts in that matchup to hand the hosts one of their five losses this year, 6-1, behind a hat trick from Cabrera, two goals from Griffith and one from Henley.
Hillsdale Academy, under head coach Neal Brady, has momentum of its own entering Friday evening’s rematch with the Cougars. After picking up their district final victory in a 4-2 win over Jackson Lumen Christi, the Colts (10-5-0) won their first-ever regional semifinal in dominating fashion, routing Brighton Charyl Stockwell Prep, which had entered the game with a 13-1 record, to the tune of an 8-0 mercy-rule win.
The Colts have their own offensive big guns to bring to bear, including Luke Brady, Bennett Fast, Jay Jenkins, Grayson McArthur and Ridley Fast.
The top scoring threats for Hillsdale Academy, at least coming out of the semifinal round of regionals, are Luke Brady and Bennett Fast, the pair of whom combined for five of the eight goals from the regional semifinal mercy-rule victory over the Sentinels, which means that LCS’ backline and goalkeeper Evan Hendershot, will be in for a big test come Friday night up in the state capitol.
“We know its gonna be a different game once you get to this point. You don’t have teams that have gotten super lucky for four or five games. (Hillsdale Academy) has improved a lot, Neal Brady is one of the best coaches in the state, so he’s gonna have them ready and he’s gonna have a definite plan,” said Sharpe. “I feel that we’re going to need to be fluid because we don’t wanna change what’s made us successful, we’re know who we are and we know what we need to do, and in years past, I think we would make adjustments or changes based on playing a better team on paper, but we feel confident in who we are.”