Lions haul in more hardware
Story and photos by Tara Hefferan
CSAA Finals: Newaygo 3 vs. Tri County 0
Newaygo Lions Soccer has won the CSAA Conference Tournament, a week after claiming the regular season CSAA title. With the victory, the Lions continue their 17-game undefeated streak, scoring 87 goals so far this season while conceding just 6.
The Tournament championship was played at Newaygo Colosseum on Friday, May 19, and from the opening whistle, the Lions dominated possession. With good ball circulation and signature precision passing, the Lions got on the board late in the first half. With 8:54 left on the clock, Lynnea Briones—referred to as “mini-Messi” by fans—dribbled through the defense on left side of the field. Finding space, Briones launched a cross into the center of the box. As the ball bounced around, Connelly Hefferan Nordlund brought it under control and quickly laid it off to McCaiden Rienstra. From the center right of the box, Rienstra let loose a bending shot into the corner of the net, putting the Lions up 1-0. This would be the only goal of the first half.
When the first half came to a close, Newaygo had put up 17 shots, while Tri County managed just 3. Tri County is known for its aggressive counter-attack, but the Lions defense kept the Vikings largely contained. Sofia Briggs, Maddie Couch, Natalie Richardson, and Rachel Larsen patrolled their territory with relentless determination, effectively stifling the Vikings transition play before it could become dangerous. Lion Keeper Barbara Toth faced just one shot on goal, which she expertly caught and put back in play.
Returning from the halftime break, the Lions maintained intensity, continuing their pressure toward goal. Their effort was rewarded when, with 26:08 left in the second half, Grace Painter scored. As the Vikings tried to clear the ball following a Newaygo attack, Landry Hefferan Nordlund stole it back, making a move to beat the Vikings defense. Hefferan Nordlund then sent a short pass in front of goal to Painter. Painter maneuvered around the last line of defense to slam the ball into the center of the net. The Lions were up 2-0.
As the Lions continued to control play and protect the lead, Vikings players and fans began to show signs of frustration. Tri County was issued a yellow card infraction for an illegal tackle against Lion defender Couch. Shortly thereafter, the Vikings' sidelines also were sanctioned for disorderly behavior. The game was halted for several minutes, as fans charged with abusive behavior were ejected from the stands.
Following the disruption, the match resumed with a Tri County goal kick. While the two teams battled for possession, Newaygo continued to generate more chances to score. This advantage paid off with 9:09 left in the second half. Following a Tri County counter-attack, C. Hefferan Nordlund won the ball. Bringing it forward, Hefferan Nordlund found Painter. Painter advanced into Viking territory with urgency, beating several defenders with skills moves, to position herself in front of goal. Painter fired a rocket into the corner of the net, bringing the Lions to 3-0. Captain Sofia Briggs said, “I’m always going to remember the feeling from the third and final goal of the match. After that goal, our win was guaranteed with the few minutes remaining.”
As the final minutes ticked down, the Lions focused on maintaining possession rather than attacking goal. The game ended with the Lions up 3 and Tri County 0. In the second half, the Lions fired off 7 shots total, while Tri County managed just 2. Keeper Toth capably stopped both Viking attempts, earning her 13th shutout of the season.
The Lions now have won both the regular season CSAA title, as well as the post-season CSAA Tournament trophy. This is the first time in at least a decade that Lions have captured these honors. Remarking on the accomplishments, Captain Connelly Hefferan Nordlund said, “It feels great to be the CSAA champions. We’ve worked hard for this for years, and it feels amazing to have proof of it.” Captain Briggs added, “I am so proud of our team and how far we’ve come. I hope our success will continue during districts!”
After shaking hands with the Vikings players, coaches, and officials, the Lions raced to the sidelines, to thank their fans. In return, the fans were on their feet, jubilantly applauding the Lions on their noteworthy achievements. The players then headed to the center of the field, where the CSAA Conference trophy was presented to the team. As the players lifted the trophy over their heads in celebration, the fans spilled onto the field in congratulations. Captain Grace Painter said, “I will always remember the team coming together to celebrate with the trophy, after thanking our fans that came to support!”
What accounts for the Lions success this season? The players note that teamwork and connection are key elements, along with a history of playing together. Captain Briggs said, “We’re able to read each other very well.” Captain Painter said the key is “Our composure and mental toughness. We encourage each other to remain focused and work hard, no matter the circumstances!” Captain Hefferan Nordlund added, “Everyone on the team is friends with everyone, and we all want what’s best for the team as a whole.” The hard work and camaraderie have paid off, with the Lions capturing the top spots in the CSAA conference.
Reflecting on the night, Lions Coach Matt Painter said, “After battling Tri County just one week ago for the conference title, I wasn’t exactly sure how we would respond tonight. And then on top of that, I think our seniors had some extra emotions today, following their last day of school activities! However, when the whistle blew, our girls seemed to forget about everything else besides what they needed to do on the field. I felt that we controlled possession for much of the game and made our shots count. Our girls wanted to leave no doubt that they deserved to be Conference Champs! I really can’t think of a better way to end our regular season than with a trophy. Next week we will need to stay sharp as we prepare for our next goal: winning our second District Title!”
With a bye in the first round of District play, the Lions next will take the field at home on Wednesday, May 31 at 5:00 PM. Their opponent is to be determined.
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