Skyline head coach Shawn Kennedy wasn’t afraid to admit that panic began to set in amongst the Eagles players and coaches during Friday’s 5A quarterfinal matchup against Hillcrest.
Hillcrest’s Joseph Ruiz capitalized on a Skyline defensive error three minutes into the second half, intercepting a slow-rolling back pass before guiding it into the net for a 1-0 Husky advantage.
Over 20 minutes went by after the Hillcrest goal and the Eagles started looking pretty unsettled, as Hillcrest seemed content to defend and keep the ball in front of them.
“Our kids panicked and even the coaches panicked,” Kennedy said. “Everything we’ve tried hasn’t worked so far, so what should we do now?”
A little bit of individual brilliance from sophomore Nico Golesis ended up doing the trick.
Golesis made an impressive turn with the ball up the right side of Skyline’s attacking third, outran a couple Hillcrest defenders and shot the ball past the keeper for the equalizing goal the Eagles had longed for.
That moment, which came with just over 15 minutes remaining, changed the whole game.
Twelfth-seed Skyline went on to score two more goals over the final quarter-hour, as it finished with a 3-1 quarterfinal victory on the road over the fourth-seeded Huskies.
“Nico is a determined, talented player,” Kennedy said. “As soon as he made that run and scored that goal we could see all the players go, ‘Oh, now we can come back, settle in and play our style of soccer.’”
The equalizing goal had an effect on the Eagles that was fairly conspicuous. The players looked much looser and confident in all phases of the game.
Six minutes after the equalizing goal, Skyline senior captain Logan Sorensen received the ball on the right side of Hillcrest’s penalty area, took a couple of touches toward the middle of the field and then drove his foot through the ball.
The shot, which Sorensen took with his weaker left foot, nestled into the bottom left corner of the Hillcrest goal, giving the Eagles a lead in the game — a prospect that seemed like a stretch just a few minutes prior.
Sorensen said his team managed to keep its heads above water just long enough to change the momentum of the game in their favor.
“Giving up that goal was a wake-up call,” Sorensen said. “Getting a goal back changed our momentum.
“We played on their half most of the game, but Hillcrest played great defense. I think we just tried to stay calm and we were finally able to get one.”
After the Eagles managed to flip the script rather abruptly, the Huskies began to look like the frantic side, as they drove more and more players up the field to try to get a second goal.
Hillcrest managed to generate a handful of positive attacks, sending some dangerous balls into the Eagles’ penalty box, but the increased players in attack opened them up to the counter.
With just over a minute left in the game, Skyline’s Brennan Lamont pressured a member of Hillcrest’s backline, took the ball up the right side of the field and slotted home a finish similar to that of Golesis’ goal.
That third goal killed any hopes of a Hillcrest victory.
Aside from the self-inflicted error that led to the Hillcrest goal, Skyline delivered a defensive performance that was worthy of a victory, and the Eagles looked like a physically dominant team for a majority of the 80 minutes.
Kennedy said that his players have recently been starting to understand how to harness their physical presence on the field.
“(Our defense) has really been the staple of our team,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got some really physically skilled players, which is awesome, but sometimes they’re too skilled and they take it upon themselves to produce results.
“Our last couple of games, we’ve finally been able to play off each other and for each other.”
The strong, late-game performance from the Eagles in the quarterfinal meant that they will be playing in the 5A semifinals for the third consecutive season.
Though it is familiar with deep playoff runs, Skyline hasn’t been able to get over the hump and turn those runs into titles.
Sorensen said he and his teammates will try to maintain their current intensity, but Kennedy said the message to his team will be focusing on making sure they’re playing in a way that will result in positive memories.
“We tell the kids this is for your community, for yourselves and (these playoff runs are) what you’re going to remember for a lifetime,” Kennedy said.
“We want to make sure those are good memories. The kids are motivated and they work hard to do their best, so we won’t really do anything differently — other than practice our PKs.”
The Eagles will look to upset another higher-seeded opponent in the semifinals, as they play top-seeded Wasatch at noon on Monday at Zions Bank Stadium.