CHESWICK, Pa. — Deer Lakes refused to freeze under the headlights of Lancer Stadium Wednesday evening, with Shady Side Academy just one win away from unseating the WPIAL Boys’ Class 2A Section 2 champions.
Instead, it was senior midfielder Michael Sullivan who left the Indians (9-1, 9-2) stunned, as the Lancers (8-1, 8-1) doubled them up, 2-0, behind his 11th and team-leading 12th goals of the season. The victory put them back in control of their title defense with less than a week to play in the regular campaign for both sides.
“We came in with a lot of guys battling injuries, and they’re working 80 minutes to try and get the result. I credit the boys so much for the heart they put into this game, and the hard work they do,” said Sullivan, part of DL’s three-man leadership group this season. “We said in our pre-game huddle we needed to win every 50-50 ball, and we came out and did that.
“We battled from minute one to minute eighty, and the result showed.”
The truncated schedule brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has been a lot to put on the varsity boys of Deer Lakes, which looked no worse for the wear after avenging its only loss, a 2-1 setback at SSA Sept. 24.
“The negative from that game is that we tried to match up against them and do what they do, and we’re not that team,” head coach Dan Yates said. “We have to move it, we have to play, we have to rotate, and we executed that game plan today perfectly.”
“A lot more people will get minutes, there’ll be a lot more rotation, and we’ll get the legs going again,” said Yates. “We’ve got a good system, and a bunch of fantastic players here, and hopefully it’ll take us all the way.”
But first things first: the Lancers had to get close enough to goal to ruin a possible third clean sheet in four matches by the Indians (not including an Oct. 12 forfeiture by Valley). The back line tandem of senior Gunnar Pipitone and junior Owen Maartens, who started for Shady Side’s back-to-back WPIAL championship team two years ago, made that easier said than done.
Deer Lakes, which came out in a 4-5-1 and withstood the Shady Side attack throughout the first half, didn’t want to wait until the last minute to test starting keeper Zach Conti. It did anyway, and that’s exactly when patience paid off for Sullivan.
The co-captain saw a long, high-arching pass from fellow midfielder Ryan Hanes arrive on the right wing from the opposite side, just within Indians territory. Sullivan stayed with it, waited for his defender to misjudge it on the bounce, then blew past him and blew the ball past a diving Conti into the bottom-left corner of goal with 44 seconds to spare.
“We struggled to get the ball out wide in the first half, and that’s what we were looking to do coming into this [match] and trying to exploit. Hanes played an absolute worldie of a ball through,” said Sullivan of the sophomore’s eighth assist of 2020.
Ed Thompson Photo Gallery (Deer Lakes vs Shady Side Academy, 10/14/2020)
“It was the first time we actually moved the ball in the half,” Yates added. “We move it from side to side, we make your position move and we pick off players there to go forward. That’s what I reiterated at halftime: the more we move the ball, the easier the game becomes.”
The Lancers seemed to wear down Shady Side early in the second half, and the patience of Sullivan proved to be a virtue once again. A callous throwaway by backup keeper Bruce David, who had been rotated in after the break, was intercepted in the attacking third by Sullivan.
On the 53rd minute, with an assist from senior forward Ryan Rodgers, he promptly drove the dagger into the Indians’ collective heart right down the heart of the field, mesmerizing David and surpassing Devin Murray for the team lead in goals.
“We were working on our press yesterday, trying to figure out how to win the ball further up the pitch,” said Sullivan. “It happened to come to me from about 20 yards out, and I saw the keeper was out of position, so I hit one on the open side of the net.”
The Indians’ best opportunity to halve the lead came with under 20 minutes to play. A long, indirect free kick from roughly 35 yards, taken by Joey Anania from the far side of the pitch, found Sam Farner, whose own brace was the key factor in Shady Side’s earlier decision over Deer Lakes. Leaping sophomore Nick Braun got just enough fingertips on Farner’s header to deflect it off the bar.
Braun and the reigning WPIAL 2A runners-up now have registered as many clean sheets, four, in 2020 as they have goals allowed (again, forfeitures notwithstanding).
He was well supported all night by senior co-captain Colton Spence, who anchored a back line of Jake McCutcheon, Mason Metzler, himself and Nate Litrun that, as a unit, showed no signs of losing a step despite the taxing nature of this year’s staggered schedule.
“[We keep going] just for the reward that we know is at the end,” Sullivan said. “That section title is within our grasp, and we come to practice every day knowing you’ve got to put the work in to get that, and go farther in the playoffs.”
“We’ve always got a fighting spirit,” Yates said of his squad. “We never give up, we never say die, whether we’re 5-nil up or 1-nil down, whatever it is, we never say die.”
The Indians, meanwhile, will have to handle their business at Leechburg in next Monday’s 4:00 p.m. EDT regular season finale to keep their section title aspirations alive.
Prior to that final postseason tune-up, Shady Side hosts the Kiski School Saturday morning at 11:30 for one last non-section affair.