(written for goalWA by Highline team personnel)
PORT ANGELES, WA—Highline versus Peninsula was billed as the match of the season thus far in the NWAC and it played out exactly as advertised. The Thunderbirds left Port Angeles with a deserved 1-‐0 result as they got the better of the top ranked Pirates on their home turf. The game was filled with intensity, tough tackles, and brilliant skill all over the field that made it an absolute pleasure to watch. The only goal of the game came from a master class in counter-‐attacking that resulted in Freshman Alex Lexis scoring the game winning goal for the ‘Birds.
The result places the Thunderbirds firmly in the driver seat for the top seed in the Western Division as they hold the tiebreaker over Peninsula and are currently three points clear with one match left to play. The Pirates must win their remaining two games and hope that Highline drops points versus Tacoma in order to have any chance of securing sole possession of another Western Division Banner. PCC’s remaining games are both away against an extremely talented Bellevue Bulldog team and a resilient Olympic Rangers team, any loss means that the Pirates can do no better than second seed in the West. If Highline can find a way to beat a very tough and talented Tacoma team they will claim the top seed regardless of any other results.
The match had a fanatical start for the T-‐Birds they gained a corner in the opening two minutes of the match. It was clear that they were looking to gain another early advantage, as they had all season, but despite a couple of set plays, Highline was unable to find the back of the net in the early going. It seemed as though this game was going to come down to set plays, and it was Peninsula who almost broke the deadlock through a set play of their own. A quarter way through the opening half the Pirates were awarded a free kick just outside the Highline penalty area on the end line.
They swung in a very dangerous cross that was only half cleared and the ball fell to the top of the box. A Pirate fired a very dangerous first shot that was blocked with the ball falling again to the top of the eighteen. The second shot was significantly more dangerous with Peninsula midfielder Caio Maciel firing a ferocious shot that seemed destined for the bottom right corner of the net. However it was slight defection off the fully extended Highline midfielder Esteban Tobon’s right foot that did enough to put the ball on to the post and allow the ‘Birds to clear their lines. That half chance was as close as the Pirates would come for the duration of the game.
Aside from the close call early in the game it was the Thunderbirds who had the majority of quality chances in the first half. Freshman Brandon Madsen was playing like a man possessed and giving the Pirate back four all kinds of headaches during the opening half. Madsen and Kenny Sweet nearly combined for the go ahead goal halfway through the first. It was Madsen who ghosted past two Pirate defenders and careened in off the left flank before centering the ball to Sweet who had made a very clever run to the penalty spot.
Kenny hit a first time shot that had Pirate goalkeeper Aaron Zavolokin leaning, but a Pirate center back had a crucially time sliding tackle to block Sweet’s shot and preserve the deadlock. The Thunderbirds had a very similar chance a few minutes later that resulted from another set play. Isidro Prado-‐ Huerta played a beautiful driven ball that the pirates were only able to half clear. The ball fell to Italo Mota, a recent Peninsula transfer to Highline, who unleashed a venomous strike that would have broken the deadlock if not for another wonderfully timed block by the Peninsula center back to keep the teams level.
Despite the intensity of the game and what was on the line, most of the first half was played in very good spirit with very few malicious tackles going in. However it must be said that there were a few yellows that took place in the first period of play. Firstly, Highline midfielder Vinny Nguyen was judged to have gone in high with his cleats showing on a Pirate player and was rightly given a caution. Later on in the period Peninsula playmaker Caio Maciel was trying to latch on a through ball and inadvertently slid into to Highline GK Grayson Raffensperger resulting in his first caution in the game. The first half ended with the sides in a stalemate, 0-‐0, however the second half would prove to be even more exciting.
The next period started with Highline again taking the initiative, knowing that they had to find a goal to get the result they needed. Peninsula looked content to absorb pressure and either hit on the counter, or via set plays. Highline came close during the opening minutes, with Italo’s shot being deflected after some very good link up play with Alex Lewis. Isisdro also came very close off a free kick and if not for an absolutely brilliant reactionary save by Zavolokin would have given the Thunderbirds the lead. Zavolokin ended the match with five saves.
Isisdro would keep at it at though and in the 67th minute would provide the ‘Birds with the platform to take the lead after some very committed play. The Pirates won a free kick just outside the Thunderbird penalty area and elected to cross the ball into the box. Highline did a very fantastic job clearing the cross and the ball fell to a Pirate defender at the midway line. The defender looked unsure of whether to play the ball on, or nip the ball back into the box. Isidro took this indecision as an opportunity to pounce as he quickly closed down the defender and won possession at midfield. With only Zavolokin to beat, Isidro streaked toward the goal with Highline midfielder Alex Lewis flanking him on his right. Prado-‐Huerta showed his class as he committed the keeper and showed great selflessness to square to ball to Lewis. Alex’s could do no wrong as he side-footed the ball into a gaping Pirate net to give the Thunderbirds the deserved advantage in the game at the 67th minute.
The goal seemed to awake a sputtering Peninsula attack as they immediately looked to put Highline under pressure and even up proceedings. Although cross after cross poured into the Thunderbird box the back line stood firm. The defense, labeled porous by some, showed that when they are on from, are as good as any backline in the league. Highline keeper Grayson showed glimpses of the Detroit Lions’ Megatron as he was a certified beast in the air. Although, aside from crosses, the Pirates never really went on to truly trouble Raffensperger with anything on target. Grayson
ended the match with two saves.
The Pirates best chance of the second half came from a penalty call late in the game. Peninsula forward Eddie Benito was played in by Maciel with a beautiful chipped pass, and looked to control the ball with his chest before dispatching a shot. The ball however, wasn’t cleanly controlled and looked to get away from Benito. Eddie, under pressure from Highline center back Colton Ronk, went down in the box before the ball was cleared. It looked as though the forward had made the most of any contact in the box and the referee stood firm and rightly waived on play to continue despite the outcry from the Pirate faithful.
Highline had several chances to put the match beyond doubt in the closing minutes but were unable to find the back of the net on some very gilt-edged chances. The game also got somewhat more physical with 3 players being booked. Pirate center back Brodi Keefe was sent off for mauling down Brandon Madsen when he was clear in on goal. Highline center back Garret Brewer was then cautioned for a heavy full-‐ blooded challenge on Maciel. Lastly, Maciel was giving his second yellow after a spiteful elbow to face of Isidro very late in the game.
When the final whistle blew, the result had Highline buzzing. They had regained control of their destiny in the West and broken two Pirate winning streaks in the process. The Peninsula side painted a very somber picture, as that was the first time they have been beaten on their home field and they now need help to secure sole possession of another conference title. The season still isn’t over, as both teams still have some very tough matches to play and nothing is yet decided. However, if this match was a prequel as to what the NWAC Playoffs could have in store, it should be a very entertaining postseason.
A special thanks goes out to photographer Jay R. Cline: you braved the elements to come out and shoot the game!
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