The stakes of Tuesday’s Class 5A regional soccer game at Great Bend’s Cavanaugh Field were evident from the start. Both teams seemed reluctant to make a move in the early minutes of the game. Eventually, the No. 2 seed Panthers took control. Senior captain Noel Rodriguez finished with three goals, lifting Great Bend over Andover 5-2.
“We started really slow,” said Panther coach Gus Prieto. “I think my team was confident. I told them this was not easy. It doesn’t matter what their record is. This is the finals and the loser is out, so they’re going to come here and try to win the game.”
Andover (5-11-1) had the first shot on goal 10 minutes in, but the teams managed just a handful of shots toward goal in the first 20 minutes. Rodriguez was the first player to find the back of the net, surprising the Trojan keeper and giving Great Bend a 1-0 lead with 25:52 to play in the opening half.
The Panthers (14-3) managed just three shots on goal in the first half. Rodriguez made them count. With 6:20 left in the half, Michael Prieto poked the ball away from an Andover defender in the box. Rodriguez’s subsequent shot was deflected high and over the keeper for the 2-0 advantage.
“He’s important to other guys and he’s important to the team,” Prieto said. “He controls the ball and does a great job. There are players like Noel, who sometimes can not touch the ball for five or 10 minutes, but when they get the ball, they can make a big difference.”
The Trojans put just one shot on goal in the first half, and had only four shots in the first 40 minutes. Andover coach Chris Lemons said his team concentrated on defense, and when they chased down the Great Bend forwards, did not have the energy to turn around and play offense.
“I feel like our struggles probably started more defensively,” said Lemons. “I tried to have our guys drop back to half, knowing they’re a possession-oriented team that would try to break us down by passing the ball. When we did, we were able to close down the passing lanes and get them to cough up the ball. When we started chasing, which was our issue, we started chasing up high in the attack and they were able to bing it around us.”
The Panthers took a 3-0 lead 12 minutes into the second half when Enrique Guyton found Alexander Urias in the box for a header.
From there, the Trojans began to battle back. The Andover forwards drew Ramon Garcia off his line, eventually resulting in a penalty outside the box. Dallas Fiszel’s sent a dangerous free kick into the box but no one was there to put it home. Ninety second later, Panther senior Oscar Torres was sent off with a red card, opening the field even more for the Trojans. Five minutes later, Fiszel blistered a shot from 40 yards out to beat Garcia and cut the gap to 3-1 with 16:57 to play.
A minute later, Fiszel nearly scored again but missed just wide. Thirty seconds later, Alex Linot sent a beautiful ball into the box. It landed on the foot of a Trojan forward, but he did not pull the trigger and the Panthers escaped. Three minutes after that, Andover had another golden opportunity when Jacob Loflin sent a ball into the box, causing Linot to collide with Garcia. The Panther keeper was able to get up and force Benjamin Loflin’s shot off the post.
“I take my hat off to my boys,” Lemons said. “That’s how they’ve been the entire season. We’ve had adversity after adversity. For a stretch we played a bunch of tough teams, we had six of our starters out at one time. To see the guys step up from the bench and come out and fill those shoes was fantastic. Just to know my boys never quit, even when we’re down 5-2 with two minutes left, I knew they wouldn’t quit because that’s just who they are.”
Rodriguez provided the dagger just a minute after that miss. Rafael Arias sent a cross in from near the sideline to find Rodriguez in the box for his hat trick goal with 11:40 to play.
“It was a good goal,” said Rodriguez.” It gave us another boost. We were a man down and that goal really just pumped us up more.”
Great Bend picked up another insurance goal with 5:20 to play when Javier Guerra scored on an assist from Jose Mirajes. Andover quickly answered when Benjamin Loflin caught the Panther defense off-guard just 13 seconds later.
The Panthers will play host to Western Athletic Conference rival Hays on Thursday. The Indians (8-9) pulled off a minor upset to beat Winfield (10-7) on Monday.
“We beat them twice this year, but it’s going to be a hard game,” said Prieto. “They’re going to come here and try to win like us. The good thing is we’re going to play here. We love this field. We practice here all the time, and my guys play really well on grass, especially on this field.”