The Lakota East Thunderhawks’ boys soccer team entered the Division I tournament unranked in the final state poll. The Thunderhawks were unfazed.
Lakota East crashed the D-I state semifinals with upsets over opponents ranked No. 3 (Cincinnati Moeller) and No. 6 (Beavercreek) in the poll. And on Wednesday night they nearly did it again.
Lakota East battled No. 4 Olentangy Liberty hard for 80 minutes before falling 1-0 at Xenia’s Doug Adams Stadium. Liberty scored the lone goal 48 seconds into the match on Jaggar Brooker’s cross pass that Ludwig Conrad rolled past Lakota East keeper Nic Lemen.
Nerves might have contributed to that early goal. East (16-4-3) was playing in its first state semifinal game since 1999 and just the second in program history. Liberty (19-2-1) played in the state semifinal last season and was making its sixth state semi appearance in nine seasons.
“I wish we could get that first minute back,” said Lakota East coach Jeremy Hilen, who was senior defender on the Hawks’ 1999 team. “But we never gave up. We found ourselves in a hole a couple times this postseason and I thought we’d continue to give a good fight and we did. It was just unfortunate we couldn’t get that equalizer. Man, we played one heck of a team in Olentangy.
“At halftime (Lemen) said he had nerves. I thought when he came out in the second half he played much more aggressive. He left what he had on the field in the second half. I’m very proud of how he responded in the second half and ended the game.”
The state semifinal was the third straight game where Lakota East trailed. East fell behind Cincinnati Elder 2-0 in the first 10 minutes of its regional semifinal game before winning 4-2. East trailed Moeller 1-0 at halftime before winning the regional title 2-1.
“I’m very proud of the way they fought to get here,” Hilen said. “They did something only a couple teams have done in Lakota East history. The seniors, led by our captains, with just an amazing effort.”
Against Liberty, East’s offense turned up the intensity in the final 20 minutes. The Thunderhawks were turned away by a defense that has now allowed one goal in six postseason games.
Lakota East’s headers with 22:11 and 20:40 remaining in the game were both saved by Liberty. The Hawks were stopped on a corner kick with 18:12. With 6:35 remaining East had perhaps its best look at a goal. Senior Eyad Qaqish fired a shot near the left side of the goal from about 12-yard out, but a Liberty defender closed fast and managed to slide into the shot and deflect it away.
“We had a belief in never giving up, especially in the playoffs we always went down one or two goals. We always fought to the very end,” senior Parker Crowell said. “You have to learn to get back up. We’re used to that.”
Lakota East graduates 14 seniors. It was their bond that helped the Thunderhawks overcome mid-season losses to Sycamore, Springboro and Mason that put their record at 4-3-3. The Hawks rallied to win 12 straight entering Wednesday.
“We knew early on we had a good group of players,” Parker said. “We had a couple losses that really humbled us. After that we locked in and were determined we were going to make a state run.”
As for what he’ll remember most about this season’s historic run?
“The brotherhood, for sure. I’ve known many of these guys my whole life,” Parker said. “Playing at recess and all the stuff through high school … it’s really been memorable.”
“They set the expectations,” Hilen said of his seniors. “There are a lot of younger eyes looking up to them and I think they knew that. I think they can be very proud they left a good legacy. They will be sorely missed. I’m so proud of them. They’re a super group of guys.”
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