By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

SPRING LAKE – This was not supposed to be the year that Spring Lake made the state soccer semifinals.

That was supposed to happen last season, when the Lakers won their conference with a senior-heavy lineup and were ranked No. 1 in the state.

But Spring Lake fell in the regional finals in 2012, then lost 13 seniors to graduation. Another chance to advance so far again seemed light years away.

But Nic Ellingboe and Joe Czajka had other ideas. They were leftovers from the team that didn’t quite make it, and they wanted another chance.

They made it happen Thursday night.

Ellingboe headed the ball in the goal midway through the first half, and Czajka was brilliant under constant pressure in goal, leading Spring Lake to a 1-0 victory over Forest Hills Northern to capture a Division 2 regional championship on its home field.

The victory puts the Lakers(15-6-3) in Wednesday’s Division 2 state semifinal match in Plainwell against the winner of the Marshall regional.

That winner will advance to next Saturday’s state championship match.

“I remember last season talking to our coach and telling him I think we could be good enough to make it to the regional finals again,” Ellingboe, a senior forward and team co-captain, said after accepting his regional championship medal.

“Then we made it here and we played awesome. As soon as the playoffs started this year we picked it up. I don’t know where it came from, but we really found ourselves.”

Czajka said he was driven by the memory of last year’s regional final loss to Hudsonville Unity Christian.

‘I had to avenge last year’s loss,” said Czajka, a junior goalkeeper.”I had to get that bitter taste out of my mouth. This feels amazing. Touching that trophy feels amazing. We started off real slow this season and we’re just now starting to pour it on.”

A few weeks ago nobody would have picked the Lakers as a threat to go far in the state tournament.

They lost six matches in the regular season, including two to league rival Fruitport, and finished second in the Lakes 8 Conference.

But they won twice in the district tournament, including a double overtime shootout win over Fruitport, then beat East Grand Rapids in the first round of regional action.

That set up Thursday’s match with Forest Hills Northern, a team that beat the Lakers earlier in the season and upset No. 1 ranked Holland in the regional semifinals.

“If you would have told me at the beginning of the season that this group would be the regional champions I would have laughed at you,” said Spring Lake Coach Jeremy Thelen, whose team only has two senior starters. “But now, as we gain more confidence and strength and fight to us, I think this group can do a lot if things. I’m really proud of these guys.”

Thursday’s contest could have gone either way. Both teams took turns applying pressure on the other team’s goalkeeper, but nothing was going in.

The lone exception came 15 minutes into the first half, when Ellingboe flew through the air and headed a flying kick from teammate Alec Palmer into the goal.

It was Ellingboe’s fourth goal in two games. He scored three times in the regional semifinal victory over East Grand Rapids.

“It just kind of floated in the air a little bit and I just kind of took off for it and got lucky,” Elingboe said. “I got my head on it.”

Forest Hills Northern had more than enough chances to erase the deficit and take the lead. The Huskies outshot the Lakers 6-2 in the first half and 9-6 for the match, but couldn’t get the ball past Czajka.

The junior goalkeeper made save after save, jumping to stop high shots, diving to stop line drives and coming out of the goal to snag the ball and keep the Huskies from finishing off plays.

In the end he walked away with the shutout and the loudest cheers from teammates and fans in the postgame ceremonies.

“I was just trying to keep my hands warm,” Czajka said. “They were so numb. But I felt a lot like I did in our last game. I had a lot of confidence.”

“Joe was our goalie last year on a team that was ranked number one, and he didn’t get a lot of credit,” Thelen said. “But he’s always had the skill and the last few games he’s been amazing. He’s been hustling his tail off. He gets a lot of credit for this.”

Spring Lake’s defense also contributed to the shutout, aggressively challenging the Huskies’ attackers and blocking numerous hard shots.

Thelen singled out Dylan Constantine, Kaden Kendall, Ben Kramer and Adam Ross for outstanding defensive play.

“We’ve got a scrappy group of guys who just kept fighting,” the coach said. “We didn’t have the numbers in shots on goal, but we managed to put one in, then we just had to defend and defend and defend.”