Rivals stomp Annie Wright Gators to win on Senior Night

Posted 5/12/22

A wild final home game for the East Jefferson Rivals boys soccer team saw the squad earn a Senior Night victory after a back-and-forth affair with the Annie Wright Gators.

A goal from EJ forward …

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Rivals stomp Annie Wright Gators to win on Senior Night

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A wild final home game for the East Jefferson Rivals boys soccer team saw the squad earn a Senior Night victory after a back-and-forth affair with the Annie Wright Gators.

A goal from EJ forward Gary Zambor in the first half and two pivotal second-half goals from senior Taj Watson led the Rivals to come out on top 3-2 over the Gators to seal a playoff berth in the Nisqually League.

“It’s an excellent feeling, all the boys were really fired up for the game … the boys really worked hard for it and they fully deserve it,” EJ Head Coach Robert Cantley said after the matchup.

“In my eight years doing this I’ve never coached a Senior Night win, so it’s actually a pretty big deal.”

Coming into the Tuesday, May 3 home game at Memorial Field, the Rivals were desperate for a win. The result of the final home game of the season would likely determine whether the Rivals sealed a spot in the playoffs after two consecutive losses to Vashon Island High and Life Christian Academy in prior weeks.

The Rivals and Gators graced the field and got to work after the opening kickoff. EJ had a hot start as Watson broke past Annie Wright’s defense to score a goal in the opening minute, but it was offside.

Five minutes into the opening half, the Gators earned a counter attack and sent a lofty strike towards the Rivals’ net. Senior star keeper Haven McMillen lunged up to save the shot but it barely looped over his fingertips to put Annie Wright up 1-0 after five minutes of play.

The Gators gained another chance at net with a fast break seven minutes into the matchup, but this time McMillen got the better of the opponents with a leaping save to deflect a powerful shot.

Starting to find their form, EJ’s attacking front of Lochlan Krupa, Connor Scanlon, Zambor, Watson, and Mark Anderson started to poke holes in the Gator back line.

Zambor had a chance at net from a breakaway, but the opposing keeper made a swift save to his right side to keep Annie Wright up on the scoreboard.

Scanlon rushed into the Gators’ penalty box after the ball spilled out from a cross, but the attempt was overeager as the midfield maestro collided with the keeper midway through the first half.

Minutes later, the Rivals found the equalizer.

Isaac Gurney pulled a spectacular steal from the right side, pushing the ball to Scanlon for a shot on net. Scanlon’s strike was deflected by the Gator keeper, but Zambor was waiting in the perfect position.

Zambor slipped the ball in the goal to put EJ level with their opponents. The crowd roared as the Rivals performed a group celebration in front of the home fans.

Annie Wright came back with vengeance, but the superb EJ back line held steady with great teamwork from Zephyr Bell, Sean Botkin, and Micajah Shiflett to hold off the fast break.

The Rivals kept up the pressure with Watson pushing the ball up on the left side while Scanlon’s runs through the middle opened up space for EJ’s forwards.

The score remained level at 1-1 as both teams trotted to the locker rooms for halftime.

EJ’s energy held up in the second half with solid build-up play in the opening minutes.

A cross from the right side landed toward Zambor, who slipped a skillful pass from his back heel into Watson’s lane to open a breakaway chance. Watson controlled the ball and laced a strike straight into the right side of the goal to give EJ the 2-1 edge with 35 minutes remaining in the crucial matchup.

The Rivals continued to pester the Gator back line. Simon Barlow “broke the ankles” of an Annie Wright defender with a smooth cut on the left side to send the defender to the ground as the crowd cheered in response.

EJ maintained offensive pressure with creative passing between Zambor and Scanlon until the Gators evened everything late in the second half.

Looking to play spoiler, Annie Wright found a breakaway chance down the middle. The Gators’ forward booted a shot on goal and McMillen got a piece of it, but it wasn’t enough to keep the ball from rolling into the net.

The scoreboard read 2-2 with 15 minutes remaining, yet the EJ squad brushed off the goal and searched for the opportunity to go ahead.

That opportunity came three minutes later when the Annie Wright keeper booted a poor pass in his backfield, with Scanlon taking possession of the errant ball. Watson sprinted down the left side with a Scanlon pass putting him ahead for the breakaway shot. Watson laced a powerful strike that ripped into the net to push EJ up 3-2 with 12 minutes of play left.

Both teams traded shots on goal until the final whistle, but it was the Rivals walking away with the Senior Night victory to cap off the regular season.

“That’s the ‘never say die’ attitude we’ve been talking about in recent weeks …  I wasn’t worried because there was a good 15 minutes or so left in the game, so there was plenty of time for us to get the winning goal,” Cantley said after the game.

“I told them in the locker room at the beginning of the game, and then at halftime, no matter what happens you’ve got to respond and stay in the game and just keep focused.”

The coach recalled the achievements of the boys soccer squad this year, earning their first win over perennial contenders Klahowya Secondary School in more than a decade along with handing Cantley his first Senior Night victory as a head coach.

“[They’re a] special group of boys, they gave us the first wins over Klahowya, and now the first senior night win,” he said.

Looking to his senior players, Cantley expressed gratitude, discussing their vital roles as leaders and the adversity they faced over the last couple years.

“They’re the leaders; they’re paving the way for the underclassmen to come up behind them. It’s going to be hard to replace them; they’re always hard to replace, especially when you lose a dedicated goalie,” he said.

“They had an interrupted high school career because of COVID, so they were sophomores when the shutdown happened and then juniors when we had the curtailed season last year, so for them to actually get a full year of varsity, finally.”

“They’ve stuck with it and they fully deserve everything they got tonight,” he said.

After clinching a seat in the Nisqually League playoffs following the Senior Night win, the Rivals faced Life Christian Academy (No. 4 seed) in the first round as the No. 5 seat.

The Saturday playoff matchup ended in defeat for EJ, as Life Christian ended their postseason with a 3-0 win over the Rivals.

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