GREENFIELD — Exhaustion. It crept in late Wednesday night, but the Greenfield-Central Cougars refused to lay down, not until the final horn sounded.
After rallying back from a pair of one-goal deficits and three ties against East Central, the Class 3A Cougars collectively collapsed as a team, victoriously sprawled out on their home field grass.
“They gave everything they had, everything,” Greenfield-Central head coach Bobby Holden remarked with his players on their backs a few feet behind him following their 4-3 win during the Sectional 12 semifinals. “It was great.”
It was grueling, a 40-minute slugfest that stood deadlocked 3-3 at halftime until a cross pass from Braiden Sticka to Zack Bell for the go-ahead goal in the 62nd minute put them in control.
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Sticka and Bell each finished the night with two goals apiece, their 14th and 12th on the season, respectively.
Yet, nothing came easy against the Trojans (13-6), who entered the state tournament as the outright Eastern Indiana Conference champions.
The Cougars (12-5-1), who clinched the Hoosier Heritage Conference title this fall, came out fast to take a 1-0 lead in the 17th minute against East Central.
It was an opportunistic moment as a hard shot on goal by Caleb Mundell drew crossbar and ricocheted in front of the net, which Sticka hammered home with a sliding kick.
The Cougars racked up nine more shots in the first half and 18 in the match (11 shots on goal), but the Trojans found an answer nearly matching them goal-for-goal.
East Central tied the match 1-1 with 18:38 left in the first half off a set free-kick piece, played just off the sideline and within a lob throw from the net. Nathan Weis lofted the ball into the box to initiate the play where Tyler Koelling lined it in for the goal.
A header goal by Peyton Wilhelm off a cross pass by Kameron Siebert put the Trojans ahead 2-1 with 14:26 left on the clock.
East Central eventually grabbed a 3-2 lead eight minutes later on another perfectly timed corner kick play. This time going to Jared Tiemann for the header.
“Honestly, we just weren’t ready. We came out thinking we would be able to possess and everything we did against Mt. Vernon (in the quarterfinals), but they came out with more power, strength and were ready to play,” Sticka said. “We just weren’t ready for it.”
Both teams were fatigued as well, playing quarterfinal matches the night prior, grinding through 80 minutes within 24-plus hours.
“Our turnover ratio was way higher than it’s been,” Holden said. “Maybe when you have two games in two nights? I’ve never seen that before. It was really tough on the boys.”
They fought through it, however, tying the match 2-2 off a corner-kick play of their own with 10:09 left in the first half. Sticka blasted a hard grounder toward the box where Bell streaked in to lace it into the net.
With 3:33 remaining, the Cougars’ quarterfinals hero Pablo Aguinaga, who had two goals Tuesday, flashed his game-changing skill with a swift kick pass around an East Central defender in stride toward a sprinting Sticka, who converted to tie it up 3-3.
“Trailing helped us out because it filled up our integrity to want to push forward and score and then get everything out and play our style,” Sticka said. “Family. That’s what we are.”
In the second half, the Cougars were stone walls one through 11. They clamped down on the Trojans’ offense, cutting off their fluid midfield passing attack from the first half and limiting them to zero corner kicks, which netted them two goals the first 40 minutes.
Abraham Buescher had three saves for Greenfield-Central in goal, while the offense peppered East Central’s keeper, Chase Sizemore, who logged seven saves.
This season the Cougars haven’t lost a single match when they’ve scored at least two goals. They kept the streak alive with a sectional championship appearance on the line.
“We go up 1-0, and I’m so proud of my boys coming out and firing, and then East responded with two goals. All of a sudden we find ourselves down,” Holden said. “We lost plenty of games 2-1, and you wonder are your boys going to respond to that?
“We go down 3-2 and then, you say, ‘alright, we’re going to test it.'”
The Cougars passed, and now they will face HHC foe Shelbyville on Saturday for a potential repeat sectional title at 2 p.m.
“That’s our No. 1 goal for the season. We just wanted to come out and for the first time in school history, win back-to-back sectionals,” Sticka said.
Greenfield-Central 4, East Central 3
Goals: Braiden Sticka 2, Zack Bell 2 (GC); Peyton Wilhelm, Tyler Koelling, Jared Tiemann (EC).
Assists: Nathan Weis, Kameron Siebert, Eric Puterbaugh (EC); Caleb Mundell, Braiden Sticka 2, Pablo Aguinaga (GC).
Saves: Chase Sizemore 7 (EC); Abraham Buescher 3 (GC).