By Andrew Johnson and Steve Gunn

CEDAR SPRINGS – There had to be moments on Thursday when Coach Becky May started to wonder if her Spring Lake girls soccer team would ever make the state semifinals.

Her Lakers lost in the Division 2 quarterfinals to Forest Hills Northern in 2018 and 2019, then didn’t get to play at all in 2020 due to COVID.

On Thursday, on their way to their latest quarterfinal challenge in Cedar Springs, the Lakers’ bus broke down on a back road, and parents had to deliver the players to the game, which started about 15 minutes late.

Emma Nicles controls the ball for Spring Lake. Photo/Leo Valdez

Then came the second half of the game, which was scoreless at halftime. The Lakers had three breakaway scoring chances as the clock wound down, but Cadillac goalkeeper Molly Anderson denied them each time.

But the long, frustrating wait for a goal finally ended with 2:53 left in the first overtime, when senior Zoe Komar fired a shot and scored from about 15 yards out.

Then freshman goalie Jessica Stewart made two great saves in the second OT, and the Lakers headed home with a dramatic 1-0 victory over Cadillac in the regional championship/quarterfinal game and a berth in Tuesday’s Division 2 state semifinals.

Spring Lake will play the winner of Friday’s Marshall-Cedar Springs game in Holland.

May sat on the team bench with her forehead in her hands as her players mobbed each other in celebration, relieved that her talented squad had finally gotten past its regional title slump.

It was the Spring Laker girls team’s first regional title since 2013.

“We had some really good looks on goal,” said May, who won her first regional title as coach. “We had at least three shots that could’ve gone in, and when they didn’t, it’s hard to maintain that same level. But these girls just battle and go hard for the goal. They never, ever give up, even though we missed a couple.”

Spring Lake’s No. 22 Ryann Gilchrist pushes the ball up field. Photo/Leo Valdez

Junior forward Meah Bajt, Spring Lake’s leading scorer, said her team has the ability to remain calm and get the job done, despite any frustration that might come their way.

“I know our team has a lot of fight in it,” Bajt said. “So if one play doesn’t go our way, we’re going to go after it again. We’re going to keep attacking.”

After a relatively even first half, when each team had three shots on goal, the Lakers started controlling the play and dominating offensively. But the great shots they were getting just weren’t going in.

Komar had a good shot with about 25 minutes left, but Anderson made the saved. Lauren Cavalier had a good shot about two minutes later, but Anderson made the save.

Bajt had great chances with back-to-back breakaways with about 17 minutes left, and again Anderson came up big in goal for Cadillac.

Spring Lake had a 4-1 advantage in shots in the second half, but the score remained 0-0, sending the game to the mandatory two 10-minute overtime periods.

Meah Bajt sneaks between a pair of Cadillac defenders. Photo/Leo Valdez

The first OT started the same way, with Bajt breaking in on the Cadillac goal but sending a shot high and wide with 4:50 remaining.

But Komar finally ended the frustration with 2:53 left, when she fired a long, hard shot from about 15 yards out that got past Anderson and gave the Lakers the only goal they would need.

“All game we were close to finishing, and then I had an opportunity that I thought was wide, but thankfully it wasn’t,” Komar said. “It felt great. Miah had a great pass (on the play) and it really helped.”

The Lakers were outshot 2-0 in the second overtime period, but Stewart came up with a diving hand save on a dangerous shot with about five minutes left, then had another big save just over a minute later.

When the clock ran out, Spring Lake finally had its elusive regional title and a ticket to the state Final Four.

Zoe Komar is congratulated after coming off the field for Spring Lake. Photo/Leo Valdez

“It’s awesome and amazing,” Bajt said during the celebration. “Our beginning wasn’t the best, but we fought. It wasn’t the prettiest game, but we really put our minds into it and fought. Thankfully it went our way.”

While the offense had to work extremely hard to gain its single goal, the Laker defense was excellent, particularly in the second half, keeping Cadillac from mounting much of an attack.

Eryn Bouwhuis, Reese Shelton, Emma Nicles, Kate Lewkowski and Kiele Stephenson were five of the defenders who put in the tough work.

“They start out in a defensive position, but they really don’t have a position, they have a job,” Coach May said. “As long as everybody does their job, we have success. They wait for first attack and then recover. When we have it down, it’s very hard to beat.”

Even before the game, the Lakers had to overcome the challenge of their bus breaking down on a country road on the way to Cedar Springs. Parents reported to the scene and transported the players to the game, after they took shelter in a nearby barn to avoid the intense afternoon heat.

“We took back roads and were in the country,” May said. “We heard a huge bang and thought we blew a tire, so we pulled over. But the tires were fine, so we started to go again and we just couldn’t accelerate.

“Then we pulled over and lifted the hood and saw where the exhaust had dislocated. Then we saw a piece at the bottom had broken off and we had no chance of fixing it. I jokingly said if I had some zip ties and tape I could’ve fixed it.  We were there for about an hour and finally got inside a barn to get some shade. It was epic but thankfully parents came back and rescued us.”

“It was crazy,” added Bajt about the bus trouble. “I was worried we were going to get to the game and our mindsets would be elsewhere. But once we got here we focused on it being game time, and now it’s a memory.”