There was plenty on the line in Tuesday evening’s boys soccer showdown between Skyline and Murray.
On what was senior night for the Eagles, both teams met with an identical 7-3 record in Region 6 — a record that was good for a three-way tie atop the region’s standings (Brighton being the third team).
With a region title potentially on the line, the Spartans blanked Skyline on the road, securing a 3-0 victory and a chance to control their own destiny as the program seeks its first region title since 2017.
The win also avenged a 2-0 home defeat Murray suffered at the hands of the Eagles on April 15.
Murray head coach Bryan DeMann said that the game simply came down to the work rate of his squad.
“In the end it was just hard work,” DeMann said. “Before the game we talked about the importance of pressure and not allowing them space to keep and play the ball how they wanted.”
The tactic of intense pressure was apparent from the beginning of the game, as the Spartans pressed high, allowing for most of the possession to take place in their attacking third during the early stages of the game.
Twelve minutes in, sophomore Joksan Arana pressured as Skyline tried to advance the ball, and won the ball back for Murray just outside of the penalty area. Arana took a quick touch and booted a shot from 23 yards away that found the back of the net for the game’s opening goal.
“We’ve been trying to tell that boy to shoot the ball more,” DeMann said of Arana. “He’s strong, he’s accurate and it doesn’t take a lot of space for him to get (a shot) off. He just had half a step and let it rip.”
Murray’s press allowed the team to keep the run of play for most of the first half, but it appeared as though the intense pressure took its toll on the Spartans who began to slow down a bit as the half rolled on.
As Murray slowed down, Skyline began to find its footing late in the half and created a handful of chances, but couldn’t manage to find the equalizer before the halftime break.
After a quick halftime breather, Murray started to bring the pressure, much like it did to start the first half.
Just over a minute into the second half, Murray’s Porter Whitlock took a shot at goal, which was deflected and saved by Skyline keeper Nathanael Rosas, but the deflected ball found the toe of junior Lucas Reyes, who got just enough on the ball for it to narrowly cross over the goal line and give the Spartans a two-goal advantage.
As the final 40 minutes wore on — much like the first — Murray began to slow in its press and Skyline managed to generate chances at goal.
But despite the increase in chances, the Spartans’ back line held strong with the help of goalkeeper Nemanja Saran.
Saran recorded crucial saves in the 63rd, 66th and 69th minutes to preserve his sixth clean sheet of the season.
“We scrambled hard in the back and worked for it,” DeMann said. “(Saran) was just awesome, he was just all over everything. I think he felt bad about his previous efforts that weren’t up to the level that he wanted to be, so he just stepped up today and did a great job.”
Feeling the pressure of the deficit, the Eagles began to commit more players forward as they tried to pull a goal back.
In the 77th minute, after Skyline’s Ben Siu headed a shot towards goal that pinged off the crossbar, the Spartans quickly countered, and nearly 30 seconds after Siu’s shot narrowly missed, Murray’s Mateus Romualdo notched his team’s third goal of the night with a finish from the top of penalty box — dousing any hopes of a Skyline comeback.
With Brighton not playing its next game until Friday, the impressive win moves Murray into sole possession of first place in the region, and with a win in its final regular season game a week from Tuesday against Park City — which beat the Spartans 2-1 in double overtime back on April 8 — the team has a chance to at least clinch a share of the Region 6 crown.
The young Murray squad that rosters only five seniors seems to be finding its top form at just the right time. Tuesday’s win gives the Spartans five straight wins after a midseason stretch that saw them lose three games out of six.
DeMann praised the way the seniors, particularly Whitlock and midfielder Jonah Garcia, have led the way for the younger players as the team experienced the stretch of down play.
DeMann added that the seniors, as well as the rest of the team, are certainly motivated by the prospect of a region championship.
“I think it’s really important for the older boys who haven’t had a chance to win a region championship since they’ve been here, and they’ve kind of talked that up to the younger boys,” DeMann said.
“It is important and it’s a big deal — we want to be there. … We just have to hold the course and not rest. You can’t back off at this time of the year.”