CONVERSE — There’s no better feeling when playing sports, and no worse feeling, than what happened on a cool night at Oak Hill on Wednesday.
Western senior Max Harbaugh scored two goals in the final 10:21 of the game to pull his squad back from a one-goal deficit to beat Eastern 2-1 in the semifinals of the Class 2A Oak Hill Boys Soccer Sectional.
Sectional Soccer: Western vs Eastern
The breakthrough goals were a relief for the Panthers, who had most of the possession but had trouble getting clean looks close enough to score.
“Their two center backs are really fast and it was hard to play through [offensively] and once they scored, I’m not going to lie, I got a little nervous inside, but we were able to get two as a team,” Harbaugh said.
Eastern took the lead in the 66th minute and Western’s response was swift and decisive. Harbaugh equalized in the 70th minute when he headed in a Western free kick that bounced into range for him to head to the far side netting, over the reach of Eastern goalie Kyle McCreary.
Three minutes later, the Panthers struck again. Another free kick found Harbaugh, who got a slight touch and couldn’t steer it on frame. The ball banged around in the 18-yard box before Western’s Brandon Cochran latched on and put a ball across the goal face for Harbaugh to head home again.
“The first, Nate [Tuchscherer] played a ball from the right side,” Harbaugh said. “It bounced and I flicked it to the left side netting. And the second one, it was just bouncing around in the box and Brandon Cochran, our right back, played it across the back of goal and I just had an easy tap in. They made it real easy for me.”
Western takes a 17-1 record into Saturday’s sectional final against Oak Hill. The Panthers beat Oak Hill 4-2 in the regular season — the same score that Western had beaten Eastern by just two days earlier.
Eastern, which won a Class A sectional last year, ends its season 10-7-1.
“They earned it,” Eastern coach John VanMatre said. “They had to score two very, very good goals to beat us. It’s not like we made any mistakes or did anything that gave them the game. They had to earn it. It’s so hard emotionally to go from having a 1-0 lead and having a really good chance of winning to boom-boom [being down 2-1].
“It was a great game. I can’t ask for a better game than that to finish on.”
After a tense opening hour, Eastern struck in the 66th minute when Seth Lamb scored at the back post after teammate Lance VanMatre got two shots off inside the box. The first was saved. The rebound shot went Lamb’s way and he converted into an open net.
That goal didn’t just give Eastern the lead, it forced Western to change its approach.
“Yeah, it did because I probably wouldn’t have sent Max up,” Western coach Mike Roe said.
Harbaugh is a defender normally, but had to move further upfield to strengthen the Western attack.
“I probably would have been really tentative and not so risky, but being down one goal, I wanted to make sure we’re getting him up and getting him involved in the plays. He brings a different dimension to our offense, not just our defense, but our offense,” Roe said.
Getting that kind of response from a senior leader — who scored both Western’s goals in Western’s sectional title victory last season — was the kind of thing Harbaugh brings to the table.
“There are lots of players talked about in this community and how much they bring to their teams, and I’ll tell you right now Max Harbaugh brings a lot to our team,” Roe said. “He brings a lot of heart and soul. The boys love him. He’s a great team player and you see [Wednesday] when he’s determined, he can make things happen.”
Harbaugh said it was no accident that the goals came late, after both teams had expended a lot of energy.
He said one of the ways Western turned the game was “just the persistence of our two strikers, Noah Stranahan and John [Maher] really ran them down the whole game and wore them down. And we just played as a team. It was a really good team win.”
Roe was glad to see his back line hold Eastern’s attack to few good looks on goal. Western goalie Adam Barber had to make just one save, and had another eight balls he had to play to halt attacks before they turned dangerous.
“I just wanted to highlight Max Harbaugh and Collin Rassel as well as Brandon Cochran and Dominic Bauer,” Roe said. “Those guys did a really nice job defensively, and helping us build up and maintain possession.”
Eastern’s McCreary made nine saves.
“I’m so proud of the boys. They played so well,” John VanMatre said. “We came together and played very well as a team [this season]. I would say overall the execution and the play of this team is probably one of the best teams we’ve had.
“When you really try your hardest to win and you don’t win, it hurts so bad. I think that’s what they’re all feeling now.”