PENINSULA — For the second time in 24 hours, Woodridge and Tallmadge met at Lahoski Field for a Division II postseason soccer opener.
Like their female counterparts, the Bulldog and Blue Devil boys each came in looking for a fresh start in the postseason. Also just like the girls game, it was a tight affair.
Tallmadge played inspired defense to shut down the Bulldogs and were able to force overtime off a late free kick. However, a goal from Woodridge’s Nathan Dunaj in the first overtime period advanced the Bulldogs to the sectional final with a 2-1 win Tuesday in Peninsula.
Woodridge improved to 6-6-5 and will travel to third-seeded Revere Saturday at 1 p.m. for a Division II sectional final. Tallmadge finished the season at 3-9-3.
Woodridge coach Andrew Spencer tipped his hat to Tallmadge’s effort and his own team’s perseverance.
"Full credit to Tallmadge. They play hard, as you should when its a win-or-go-home situation," Spencer said. "I told [Tallmadge] after the game that was one of the toughest games that we’ve played this season.
"We kept coming and kept coming," he added. "It had to break at sometime for us. I’m happy with how we played."
Tallmadge coach David Shahata paid tribute to his team.
"These guys played with heart. They played hard for the entire game and they do that because they play for each other," Shahata said. "It’s an honor to coach players like this."
Shahata came into the contest prepared to play defend-and-counter soccer against the Bulldogs. To that end, Tallmadge deployed a five-man backline for the game.
"Tactically, this was all preparation for Woodridge," Shahata said. "I regret nothing tactically."
The move worked for the Blue Devils. Although Woodridge spent the vast majority of the first half camped in the Blue Devils’ end, the Bulldogs managed only one shot on goal, which Tallmadge goalkeeper Jamysen Montgomery saved.
Woodridge was stymied on offense, as it seemed three Blue Devils converged on the Bulldogs’ attackers every time they came within 30 yards of goal.
"With them playing a five-man backline, we just needed to get the ball wide," Spencer said. "Everything in the middle was just not going to work."
Meanwhile, Tallmadge showed flashes of attacking prowess on the counterattack, though Woodridge goalie Ben Rado was in command of his area. Rado finished with five saves in the game.
However, in the 37th minute, an unfortunate bounce undid the Blue Devils’ defense. Woodridge senior Michael Ritch was able to get wide and sent a cross to the back post from the right side.
The ball bounced off a retreating Tallmadge defender and into the net. The own goal made it 1-0 Woodridge and the score remained the same the rest of the half.
Just after halftime, the Blue Devils made it clear they would not go quietly, as Tallmadge’s Will Hudak had a breakaway in the 42nd minute, but was stopped on a diving save by Rado.
"In the second half and overtime, you could see the momentum shifting and chances starting to come our way," Shahata said.
Indeed, Tallmadge outshot Woodridge 5-4 in the second half, although the Bulldogs hit the woodwork twice.
After several chances, Tallmadge found the equalizer in the 76th minute, when Woodridge was called for a foul about 35 yards away from the goal.
Tallmadge senior Nathan Kublala took the free kick quickly and launched a rocket into the upper right corner of the net, giving Rado no chance and tying the game at 1-1.
"If they’re not ready, we are. That’s the killer instinct that Nathan has," Shahata said. "If we wait 15 seconds [for the free kick], that doesn’t happen."
Woodridge nearly got the lead back in regulation, but Ritch’s shot in the 78th minute blasted off the crossbar.
Both teams had their chances early in the overtime period, but the game-winning goal came off of another free kick.
In the 87th minute, the Bulldogs earned a free kick deep on the left side of the penalty box. Kyle Carey sent the ball into the box, but Woodridge’s initial shot was blocked in front.
The ball deflected into the middle of the box, where Dunaj charged forward and smashed a shot into the right side of the net to win it.
Spencer said he expected a much different game when the Bulldogs play Revere.
"I think it will be a much more open game," Spencer said. "They play a 4-3-3, which I think favors us a bit."
Meanwhile, Tallmadge will lose only three players to graduation this spring, as Kubala, Brandon Manda and captain Suhaib Mahameed will move on.
Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, email@example.com or @MLeonard_GHO.