By Kevin Prise
BUFFALO — It wasn't easy for the Medina boys soccer team at All High Stadium on Friday afternoon.
Throughout most of the game, the Lafayette team attacked the Mustangs with bursts of offense and plenty of chances near the net. At times, players, coaches and fans (on both sides) got worked up about the officiating. Early in the second half, a mini-hailstorm wreaked havoc on the turf field.
It was a scrappy game, the type that veteran Medina coach Steve Luksch has come to expect when the playoffs roll around.
But the Mustangs did just enough, coming up with a late first-half goal to grab some momentum, scoring off a throw-in early in the second half, and holding on for a 2-1 victory over No. 3 Lafayette in a Class B-1 semifinal game. No. 2 Medina advances to play No. 1 Newfane (for the third time this season) on Thursday evening at Hamburg High School. Game time is set for 7:30 p.m.
"I'm proud of the group," Luksch said. "From the beginning, our goal was to get back to the finals, and we got it done. Today was a pretty intense game, and it's a pretty big accomplishment."
After the teams battled to a 0-0 tie for most of the first half on a cold and windy October afternoon, the Mustangs struck first in the final minute of the half. The goal was generated via intensity and a refusal to let up, as Luksch urged his team to win a 50/50 ball off a Lafayette goal kick with about 90 seconds left in the half.
Medina came away with the ball, drove downfield, and was awarded a corner kick from the left side with about a minute remaining. Junior Steven Anderson took the kick, and the ball was deflected out of bounds off a Lafayette player. Anderson was awarded another corner kick, this time from the right side, and Ben Howell jumped up to knock the ball into the net with his head.
This made the score 1-0 Medina at the half, and gave the Mustangs a bit of a spark as they headed toward the locker room.
"That was huge; it was a kick-start, really," Medina senior Brennen O'Connor said. "We got into the locker room, and everyone was pumped. If we didn't have that goal, everyone would've been a nervous wreck, but it really brought us up a lot."
Five minutes into the second half, Medina struck again, off another set play. James Ianni earned a throw-in deep in the offensive zone, and aimed the ball toward Anthony Pane, who was positioned in front of the net. Pane outboxed the defense and jumped up to head the ball into the net, giving the Mustangs a 2-0 lead.
Friday marked Pane's birthday, and the goal that ultimately held up as the game-winner served as quite the present.
"It was nice," Pane said. "We didn't want a letdown today, and it was a big goal."
From there, the Mustangs had generated enough offense to win as long as their defense held up. It wasn't easy, as the Violets swarmed the net at times and scored off a corner kick with 28 minutes remaining (Haythem Taih got the goal), but Medina held tight the rest of the way.
Medina goaltender Adam Hoot was asked to come up big several times in the final 20 minutes, and he came through, most notably on a point-blank chance in front of the net with about 13 minutes left. Hoot was left one-on-one with a Lafayette player about eight feet in front of the net, but positioned himself well and made the save.
"You never want to let down, especially against a team as dangerous at them," Luksch said. "They can pop two or three goals on you pretty quickly, so we wanted to score as many as we could while we could, and then just try to hang on. Toward the end we tried to play a little defense, but for the most part, we tried to stay as aggressive as we could."
For his part, Lafayette coach Brad Brodnicki was gracious in defeat, talking pleasantly with Luksch for a few moments in the postgame handshake line and complementing the Mustangs for their ability to keep the Violet offense in check.
"It was a close game, very close," Brodnicki said. "Toward the end we put the pressure on and got a couple of really good chances to tie it up, but it didn't work out. They're a great team."