The story of the Free State High soccer team’s 4-0 victory against Junction City on Monday at FSHS was not how the Firebirds scored their four goals. Instead, the most telling part of the night was how the home team played once it had them.
Sending a clear message that they’re ready to do whatever it takes to survive and advance in the postseason, the Firebirds shared the ball, attacked relentlessly and did not let down until the final horn. The result was another shutout — the team’s 10th of the season — and a convincing victory in the first round of the Class 6A regional tournament.
“You think when you get into postseason play your kids are going to be focused and ready, and I thought we were,” FSHS coach Jason Pendleton said. “I thought in the first half we were really sharp and created and did some really positive things.”
The Firebirds jumped out to an early 2-0 lead behind goals from Jesse Clayton and Daniel Chance. Clayton, who scored his by using his head, came after a corner kick that was headed into Clayton’s lap.
That was literally the only fortunate bounce the Firebirds used on Monday. The rest of the night, they created them. The Firebirds shared the ball and constantly walked the ball up through the midfield and onto Junction City’s doorstep. Once they were there, they fired away.
Although four Free State shots found the back of the net, the Firebirds missed goals in just about every conceivable manner. They missed from point-blank range, they missed volleys, they missed headers and low rockets. Sharp-angle shots were cut too sharply and big bombs from beyond the box sailed over the goal.
No one felt the pain of missed opportunities quite like Preston Newsome, who saw three of his own shots from deep in the box plucked out of mid-air by a Junction City defender on their way into the net.
“I was getting pretty frustrated after a while,” Newsome said. “I had what seemed like about 10 just right on the goal mouth. Today, we were playing really well as a team, though, so for us to be able to do some good things without me finishing really helped a lot.”
Added Chance: “I think we could’ve put up a bigger number, but I’m happy with the result, and I’m happy we’re getting through. It’s a win. I’m not too concerned with whether we won 6-0 or 4-0.”
After opening the second half with a commanding 2-0 lead, the Firebirds put it away with a perfect goal that best illustrated the way they played throughout the game.
Defender Sam Passig controlled the ball near midfield and calmly pushed it up to Tony Libeer. After two touches, Libeer advanced the ball to Newsome, who quickly sent right wing Tyler Smith to the corner. Smith out-ran a Junction City defender to the ball, cut toward the net with a hesitation dribble and then sent a pass to Wesley Tedlock in front of the net. Tedlock, with one simple motion, volleyed the pass out of the air and into the net to give FSHS a 3-0 lead.
Although most of his night was spent supporting the offense instead of protecting his half, Passig said he was pleased with the way Free State’s defenders kept their heads and remained focused on their jobs.
“We had to be on our toes and make sure we didn’t make any silly errors,” Passig said.
The Firebirds’ final goal came from Diego Gonzalez at the 10:53 mark of the second half. With Free State’s offense refusing to let up, the pressure finally got the Blue Jays. Smith forced a turnover and instantly flicked the ball in front to a charging Gonzalez. Although the junior goal-scorer’s one-timer wasn’t perfect — Gonzalez actually rolled his foot over the ball and did not make clean contact — he got enough on it to slip it past the JCHS goalkeeper.
Monday’s victory earned the Firebirds a spot in Thursday’s regional championship game. Free State has won two regional championships in its 13-year school history — 2001 and 2005 — but has been shut out during the past three seasons.
“It’s exciting,” Chance said. “I’ve been waiting my whole career here. We’ve been to the regional championship every year and hopefully this is the year we can get it done.”
Monday’s victory also tied a school record for wins in a season. The Firebirds (13-4) will go for the outright record at 6 p.m. Thursday at FSHS against the winner of today’s Manhattan-Topeka High game.