It was an experience that none of the boys soccer players from Maeser Prep had ever had before: Running onto the field for a state playoff contest in front a friendly, home crowd.
It’s only the third time the Lions had been to the playoffs at all and other two trips had featured road games (although last year Maeser got a first-round win at Manti).
“We had a lot of support,” Lion senior Gage Decker said. “We always have a great fan base.”
The Maeser players didn’t get to enjoy the moment for long, however, as visiting Emery struck first in the 3A battle. The Spartans earned a penalty kick in the fifth minute and senior Brock Winter buried it to put the visitors up early.
Even with the pressure of the state tournament, the Lions didn’t allow the early deficit to get them down.
“We had a couple of games earlier in the season where we fell behind early and came back,” Decker said. “We just responded. Coach told us that after goals we have to come back ready to score.”
Maeser followed that advice, equalizing on a goal by Jaxson Clubb in the 18th minute, then Decker got the game-winner in the 33rd minute as the Lions defeated Emery, 2-1.
“The guys upped the work ethic,” Maeser head coach Dustin Simmons said. “We’re not as talented skill-wise as many teams are so we have to work harder than they do. We responded well.”
The goal that turned out to be the difference in the outcome came off of a play that has worked for the Lions before this season.
Maeser forward Wesley Hadfield set things up when he grabbed the ball after it had been kicked out of bounds by a Spartan defender in the Lion attacking-third of the field.
He launched one of his deep throws into the Emery penalty box, where it bounced through traffic.
“It slipped through their defense,” Decker said. “I didn’t see it until it came in and hit off my foot. It was a lucky goal but we’ve connected on those a couple of times this season.”
Simmons noted that Hadfield was the one excitedly jumping up and down after the score while Decker just calmly got back into position.
“He’s one of the quietest players on the team but he’s like a sleeper-sniper up there,” Simmons said.
While the two goals provided enough offense, it was the Lion defense that kept the Spartans from being in front.
“It was a team effort,” Decker said. “We all played well.”
The home team might’ve been in trouble if not for the brilliant defending of junior Carson Bailey.
“He came in during the second half of the season and has played well,” Simmons said. “He headed the ball out of an open net in the first half, then slid and kicked the ball of the line in the second half. The defense did a good job. We bent but we didn’t break. We just want to keep things in front of us.”
Even though they made some big plays, Simmons still feels like his team can play at a higher level.
“It’s nice to be at a point with the program where we don’t play great but we still win,” he said.
Maeser will now head on the road to face Region 13 champion Summit Academy in the 3A quarterfinals.
“It will be a tough but we have to play our game,” Decker said. “We need to stay focused. It will be big to come out strong in the first five minutes.”
No matter what happens, Simmons said he likes the way his program is coming together.
“The first few years we had no confidence and were getting blown out,” Simmons said. “Now we are building momentum. We have already equaled our best run ever. We just want to keep going. It will be a high-octane, high energy game.”
The Lions and the Bears will play for a spot in the 3A semifinals in Draper on Saturday at 1 p.m.