Free State High senior soccer player Tyler Smith is living proof of the reason the Firebirds are still playing this season. But just barely.
Tuesday night, with a spot in the Class 6A state semifinals on the line, Smith assisted on one goal and scored the game-winner in Free State’s 2-1 victory against Blue Valley West at FSHS.
Smith’s goal, which came just six minutes into the second half and put the Firebirds ahead for good, came off of a corner kick from Diego Gonzalez. As Gonzalez hit the ball high and hard to the back post, Smith came roaring in from the top of the box and headed the ball under the crossbar and into the net. Had he not connected with the ball, Smith literally might have lost his head. Instead, he played a huge role in allowing his teammates to lose theirs in celebration at the end of the night.
“I think our seniors just don’t want to leave here,” said Gonzalez, asked about the difference in Tuesday’s game. “I don’t think they want to stop playing soccer.”
Thanks to their latest effort, the Firebirds now are guaranteed to be playing on the final day of the season.
“This was a phenomenal win for us and our program,” FSHS coach Jason Pendleton said. “To reach the semifinals and know that we’re still playing this late in the season is incredible.”
Free State jumped to an 1-0 lead in the first 10 minutes on a goal that many Firebird fans have seen before. Smith, the former gymnast, unleashed one of his now-legendary flip throw-ins toward the net, where Gonzalez was the first to get a head on it. From there, senior Jesse Clayton pounded it into the net to give Free State the early upper hand.
Free State’s goal seemed to awaken the Blue Valley West offense, which spent the rest of the half peppering the Free State net with shots and scoring chances. The Jaguars tied things up with 16:42 to play in the half when junior Nick Besler scored on a header off of a corner kick, and the two teams entered the second half tied at 1.
Just as they did in the first half, though, the Firebirds struck early in the second with Smith’s goal and then played just physically enough to hold off all BV West attacks. In all, the Jaguars outshot the Firebirds, 11-3, on the night. The only number that mattered, though, was the two in the Firebirds’ scoring column.
“Whenever we get opportunities, we make the most of them,” Gonzalez said.
Smith said he had no idea at the time that his goal would prove to be the game-winner. As he left the field, he had a better understanding of just what the goal meant.
“Biggest goal of my life,” Smith said. “I just went to the net as aggressive as possible. I’m still kind of soaking it all in and trying to believe it all happened.”
Lost in the shuffle of the Tuesday’s excitement was the play of senior goalkeeper Jackson McClure, who saw the most activity he had seen all season and was stellar in dealing with it all.
“Our keeper stepped up big-time,” Smith said.
Added McClure, who finished the night with 10 saves: “I was just focused today and everyone else was, too.”
Tuesday’s victory broke the team’s existing school record for wins and moved the Firebirds to 15-4 on the season. More importantly, it also marked the first time in school history that the Firebirds have advanced this far in the postseason.
“They’re probably better soccer players than us, and they probably had better athletes than us at eight of the 11 positions on the field tonight,” Pendleton said of Tuesday’s opponent. “But our M.O. is that our guys bring their lunch pails every day, they work hard, and they just refuse to lose. That’s us.”
The Firebirds will play at either 4 p.m. or 6 p.m. Friday in the state semifinals at Blue Valley District Soccer Complex. With a victory, Free State would play for the state championship at 2 p.m. Saturday. A loss would put the Firebirds in Saturday’s third-place game at noon.