LAUREL - Don't be surprised to see assistant college soccer coaches in charge of goalkeepers hanging around Meridian for the next three seasons.
Even though the Trojans (4-13) saw their season end with a 2-1 overtime loss to South Whidbey (12-3-2) in the opening round of the Class 1A Northwest District Tournament, several players on the young Meridian team showed they have a lot to look forward to.
Trojans goalkeeper Joe Worley, a tall, quick-moving athlete who looks and plays more like a senior than a freshman, astonished South Whidbey's two co-coaches with his skills while making 13 saves on Wednesday, May 7.
"He's a freshman?" coach Emerson Robbins said with a gasp.
"Wow, they sure grow them big up here!" coach Joel Gerlach said with an appreciative grin. The coach was just grateful that Worley had no chance to stop Kai Da Rosa's golden goal in a scramble for a loose ball about halfway through the first overtime.
Meridian coach Joe Spencer expressed pride in his team, which represented the Northwest Conference well despite having only three seniors.
"I thought it was a pretty even battle," said Spencer, whose team suffered almost all its losses by only one or two goals in a conference . "Both teams played extremely hard."
Spencer agreed Worley played a most memorable game.
"That kid's fantastic for a freshman," Spencer said. "We have high expectations for Joe. I would be hard-pressed to say there may have been a better (single-game) effort in goal in the NWC this season. Joe had nothing to do with their game-winner. He was screened out by too many players."
South Whidbey struck first, scoring on Kai's right-side assist to Andrew Zisette in the 15th minute in another crowded scene in which Worley had little or no chance to prevent the score.
Meridian, however, seemed to gain confidence as the first half went on and became noticeably more active and aggressive in the last 15 minutes of the first half.
The Trojans were rewarded in the 38th minute when ever-hustling junior Jake Birnell spotted Alex Martin on the left side, more than 30 yards away. Birnell unleashed a classic long pass and Martin headed the ball in from about the 10-yard line for the quick junior's first varsity goal.
"Alex is tall (he's a 6-foot-2 all-county basketball player) and he's been there before," said Birnell, confirming his confidence in giving Martin the chance to score.
"Alex made a great run up the field," Spencer said.
Worley made six saves in the final 20 minutes of the second half as the Falcons dominated that phase of a match played with solid sportsmanship by both teams. One of his saves was a leaping one-hander during a frantic eight-minute stretch in which he prevented four goals.
Worley added a save in the opening minute of overtime, but the season was soon over for the Trojans, who appeared to take the loss exceptionally hard.
Spencer said he made adjustments in stationing players after the Falcons took their 1-0 lead. He was especially proud of how the Trojans' backline of Yoel Ortiz, Kevin Castro, Limny Nolasco and Nick Kreizenbeck responded.
Birnell and fellow offensive threats Alan Eyoub, a sophomore who displayed consistent hustle and clever footwork, and fast-moving freshman Jordan Birnell made the Falcons work hard throughout.
"We knew Meridian would be tough," said Falcons co-coach Gerlach. "We saw how just about every game they played was tight."
Oswaldo Zamora - one of the Trojans' three seniors along with Ortiz and Kreizenbeck - provided midfield steadiness along with junior Sergio Mejia-Ortiz and sophomore Koby Smith among the starters.
"I think they're a very hard-playing team," said Falcons co-coach Robbins, whose own goalie, junior Charlie Stelling, also played well with five saves.
South Whidbey clinched a Tri-District Tournament spot with the win. The Falcons will face Mount Baker in the semifinals on Friday, May 9, at 4 p.m. at Baker.
SOUTH WHIDBEY 2, MERIDIAN 1 (OT)
Scoring: Goal: Andrew Zisette (SW); assist: Kai Da Rosa; time: 15. Goal: Alex Martin (M); assist: Jake Birnell; time: 38. Golden Goal: Da Rosa. Time: 83. Shots on goal: South Whidbey 15, Meridian 10. Goalkeeepers (saves): South Whidbey: Charlie Stelling (5); Meridian: Joe Worley (13).