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Westlake Thunder feeling ‘euphoria’ as they advance to the championship round of the Graduation Cup

The Thunder defeated the Murray Spartans 2-0 to seal their spot in the title game of the Pomp Division

Westlake forward Kamden Beck attempts at free kick towards the end of the first half the Pomp Division semifinal match between the Thunder and Murray Spartans in the 2020 Graduation Cup, held at Legacy Events Center on Friday, June 12, 2020.
Trent Wood, Deseret News

FARMINGTON — The 2020 high school boys soccer season was supposed to be a special one for the Westlake Thunder.

Coming into the season, few teams had as much optimism that they could contend for, if not win a state championship. The Thunder were unique in that they had a senior-laden team filled with athletes who had played club soccer together for years. They were battle-tested too, thanks to playing in the always difficult Region 4. And they weren’t lacking for motivation, after back-to-back-to-back first round state tournament exits over the last three years.

For all the optimism, the season didn’t start out exactly the way the Thunder wanted though. They began the year 3-0, but they never quite played at the level they wanted to.

“In the preseason, we weren’t really playing our best,” senior Zach Lifferth said. “People started to doubt us, saying we were overhyped.”

Then the season was postponed, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The high school boys soccer season was eventually canceled altogether and the Thunder’s dream of a state title disappeared, but Friday afternoon at the Legacy Events Center, they were together again, playing soccer.

And at the end of 80 minutes of play, they had earned themselves one final game.

Westlake defeated the Murray Spartans 2-0 Friday, in one of two semifinals matchups in the Pomp Division of the 2020 Graduation Cup. Liffereth and Fabrice Aitken each scored for the Thunder — Parker Allen had a clean sheet in goal — who will be the first to tell you that even though the Graduation Cup isn’t the state tournament, it is greatly appreciated.

“We are just completely stoked to have the chance to play again,” head coach Don Bastian said. “All spring, all of the boys, we were just hanging on. We got our hopes up and then they got dashed, we got our hopes up again and then they got dashed, and then once it (the season) was canceled all the kids were let down. Half of the team is seniors. The chance to come and play again, it is phenomenal.”

“We were all super excited to get back on the field and at least get something,” Lifferth said. “It is not the same as the state tournament, but it is another tournament to play in and another chance to win, to show how we can play.”

When Bastian first learned about the Graduation Cup, he felt “euphoria,” and Westlake was one of the first teams to sign up. The moment the UYSA (Utah Youth Soccer Association) said it was okay to go ahead and practice, the Thunder were among the first to take the field.

“The UYSA allowed us to have contact with the players on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, and that Tuesday, we were back on the field,” said Bastian. “We were out there as soon as we could and we have been going every weekday for the last two weeks.”

It has paid off as the Thunder are now in the championship game, having survived pool play and an elimination game. The title game, which will pit Westlake against the Corner Canyon Chargers, is slated for 8 a.m. Saturday morning, and while a win won’t be quite the same as hoisting aloft the state championship trophy at Rio Tinto Stadium, it will still mean the world.

“It is a big deal,” said Bastian.

While two months off and a week-long tournament have taken their toll — “You can see this tournament is wearing on them a little,” Bastian said. “They are getting sore, tight and tired” — the Thunder have all but done what they set out to do.

“We’ve come to this tournament and shown how we can play,” Liffereth said. “We’ve shown the level we can play at.”

All that remains is one final victory.