Grand Island Senior High watched Columbus slowly chip away at its three-goal lead during the second half of Thursday’s Class A, District 4 championship at Memorial Stadium.
First the Discoverers cut it to two. Then one.
But despite some prime opportunities to pull even – especially during a wild final 70 seconds — Columbus was denied.
The end result was exactly what the Islanders wanted. That’s a 3-2 victory and a trip Tuesday to Omaha’s Morrison Stadium for the Class A state tournament.
“Winning ugly is still winning, and we’ve lost pretty before,” G.I. coach Jeremy Jensen said. “I’d rather have the situation we’re in tonight. A ton of credit to Columbus. We knew they’d come in here with a ton of confidence. They beat Omaha Creighton Prep, and I don’t care if they are the four seed. They’re so much better than a four seed.”
Grand Island (10-5) built up a 3-0 lead over a 14-minute stretch in the first half.
Javier Baide brought the ball up the left side then sent a pass to Cameron Carlson in the box, and the junior forward slammed home the opportunity at 15:53.
Gabriel Gonzalez got hit from behind inside the box at 22:41 to give the Islanders a penalty kick.
Diego Salas sent the shot into the lower left corner to make it a 2-0 contest.
Then Salas put away a cross from Baide at 29:58, although that goal wasn’t as picture-perfect as his first one.
“I’ve been practicing (penalty kicks) a lot with Javy, and we decided I was going to take it,” he said. “The second goal the sun was in my eyes, but I just got my head in there and it’s in. It hit my face a little bit.”
Baide said the Islanders played an excellent first half.
“The first half was way different than the second,” he said. “Me with the passes to Diego, I did pretty good with those. But then once they had a tight mark on me, we had to switch it. But we held on, and it was a pretty intense game.”
Jensen said a 4-2-3-1 formation that was really a 4-3-3 paid off.
“It created a lot of opportunities for us,” he said. “We put three away, but we had other chances as well. We just needed to stem the tide. …
“Credit them – we didn’t put them away. I was really hoping for that fourth one, and I know that sounds crazy. If you would have told me we were up 3-0 at halftime, I would have felt really good about things. But I felt towards the end of the half we had some opportunities to bury them and didn’t.”
And Columbus (8-8) took advantage. The comeback began when a bicycle kick was off the mark but went right to Garrett Esch in front of the net, and he put a shot away at 53:11.
Things really picked up when an Israel Robledo shot got behind keeper Danny Rendon and slowly advanced until it crossed the goal line at 74:14.
“I don’t want to say we wanted to sit back and absorb pressure, but we wanted to seal things up on the back end,” Jensen said. “We conceded a lot of possession by doing so, but the whole idea was to make sure they didn’t get three in the net. There were a lot of close calls, the last five minutes especially.”
In the final 70 seconds, Columbus had a 31-yard free kick and a couple of corner kicks.
Jensen said luck played a part in the Discoverers not tying the match.
“There was a ball that looked like it was on frame, and (defender) Jalen (Jensen) had a header that glanced off the side of his head,” he said. “That couldn’t have missed far post by more than a foot.
“Then we conceded a couple corner kicks at the end that were just mayhem in the box. Who knows? It’s just a scrum in there. We’re kind of lucky and the ball bounces right. With 10 seconds left there was a ball that felt like it was in the air forever. To finally see that thing fall was exciting.”
In the end, Grand Island advances to the state tournament for the eighth time overall and seventh in the past 10 events. The Islanders also improved to 12-0 in the postseason at Memorial Stadium.
“This is amazing,” Baide said. “We didn’t expect to host districts here, but it is what it is. Columbus beat Prep, something that nobody expected.
“We beat (Columbus) once during the season, and we just had to do the job again. But this time they got a little kick on us. We had to tighten the defense in the last couple minutes. They had good chances and are a pretty good team, but tonight we had a lot of passion and did a great job.”
Grand Island likely will find itself in Tuesday’s 4 p.m. match against undefeated Lincoln Southwest when official pairings are announced Friday. The Islanders led the Silver Hawks 2-0 in the season opener before falling 3-2.