JACKSON – One goal separated Cheyenne East and Thunder Basin during the regular-season series.
Though the first game was shortened because of inclement weather, Thunder Basin came back with a 1-0 win over East in the second match-up back on April 13.
That was then. East planned for things to pan out differently over a month later at the Class 4A state tournament, with a berth into the state final on the line.
Isaac Howell’s early goal gave Thunder Basin all the momentum it needed during a 3-0 win Friday.
“Sometimes you’re the boxer, and sometimes you’re the bag, and we were the bag (Friday),” Thunderbirds coach Ryan Cameron said. “It just wasn’t our day.”
The Bolts (16-0-1) will face Jackson Hole (11-5-1) for the state championship at 11 a.m. today. The T-Birds (10-6-1) will take on Star Valley (12-4-1) for third place at 3 p.m.
East was caught off-guard in the match’s opening minutes. Howell grabbed possession at the top of the 18-yard box and blasted a shot that zoomed off the crossbar, spun over the goal line and quickly bounced back out of the net in the fourth minute. It was ruled a good goal by the assistant referee, who was standing on the goal line, and Thunder Basin took a 1-0 lead.
“That first goal that (Howell) had early, I think, made a huge difference for our confidence and to play a little bit looser once you have a little bit of a cushion, and they were able to settle in a little bit and play our game,” Bolts coach Saber Garcia said.
The T-Birds regrouped and generating a few good looks at scoring the equalizer, but they couldn’t crack the Bolts’ backline nor goalkeeper Jacoby Garcia, who made just one save on the day. On the T-Birds’ fourth straight free kick, junior Benny Eatmon rifled a direct kick toward the middle of the box to classmate Carter Rich, whose header skipped over the goal.
Eight minutes later, the Bolts doubled their lead.
Sergio Pelayo whipped a through ball to Ian Tucker, who blasted a shot past T-Birds senior goalkeeper Thomas Watson for a 2-0 lead in the 26th minute.
“Our defensive shape was off,” T-Birds senior captain Taigen Freeman said. “Our communication was a little low. We should’ve picked that up a little bit, but I think throughout the game we didn’t really pick that up.”
The T-Birds were able to generate some quality chances outside the 18 for a possible redirect, but they didn’t take enough shots from long range, Cameron
“If we take a shot from distance, maybe that draws defenders out a little bit and creates a little bit more space in there,” Cameron said. “I don’t know that we took opportunities with those chances today of taking shots from distance.”
Howell posted his second goal of the match in the 62nd minute, this time rocketing a shot into the top-left corner of the net for a 3-0 advantage.
With a commanding lead, the Bolts leaned on their midfield and backline to shut down the T-Birds’ strikers and limit chances in the offensive third.
The state’s top defense came through yet again, holding the T-Birds to just five shots, including one on goal.
“A lot of credit goes to Thunder Basin and the way they played, and the pressure that they put on us and the fact that they defended so well, and we don’t have many opportunities, let alone chances, on goal,” Cameron said. “It’s one of those things. It’s a shame that it had to happen in a state semifinal.”
The T-Birds were one win away from a shot at their second state championship in three years. Instead, they’ll have to settle for a chance at third place.
“I don’t know that too many people would’ve put us in this position to start the year,” Cameron added. “For us to go forth and play really well, especially the second half of the season. (Friday) was kind of an anomaly for us, compared to the past nine games we’ve played. It was a tough time for us to have a rough one, but I don’t think that diminishes the season these kids have had.”
THUNDER BASIN 3, EAST 0
Goals: Thunder Basin, Howell, (unassisted), 4. Thunder Basin, Tucker, (Pelayo), 26. Thunder Basin, Howell, (unassisted), 62.
Shots: East 5, Thunder Basin 12. Shots on goal: East 1, Thunder Basin 6. Saves: East 3 (Watson), Thunder Basin 1 (Garcia).
Corner kicks: East 2, Thunder Basin 2. Offsides: East 2, Thunder Basin 4. Fouls: East 13, Thunder Basin 14. Yellow cards: East 2 (Hawkins, 58; Rich, 70), Thunder Basin 1 (Myers, 75).