With the graduation of all-state players Alex Thiessen and Noah Espinosa, getting the offense going has been a struggle for the 2017 Grain Valley boys soccer team.
The Eagles only scored more than two goals twice the entire year and they were averaging just 2.25 goals per game going into their non-conference game against Blue Springs.
And due to injuries Grain Valley only had 11 varsity players available, which forced head coach Tyler Nichol to bring up two junior varsity players to fill in as bench players.
Even with all of the challenges the Eagles had, senior forward Jake Simpson managed to score two goals in the first half and the bend-but-don’t-break defense was able to hold off a late Wildcat surge in a 2-0 victory Thursday at Moody Murry Memorial Field.
It was a long time coming for Simpson, whom Nichol had high hopes for. He had one goal before scoring two on Thursday.
“We have been waiting for this,” Nichol said of Simpson’s breakout game. “He has the talent to do it. We see it in flashes. Today, he played well in the first half. He should have more than (three) goals right now.
“There have been some games that we dug ourselves in a hole early in the game. We knew this would be a dogfight for us. We knew if we could start the game well, it would make it easier for us in the long run.”
Simpson’s first goal came on a crafty kick. Blue Springs goalkeeper Jacob Williams came up to the left wing to challenge Simpson. The Grain Valley senior then lobbed a shot over Williams’ head and the rest of the Wildcat defenders and the ball went inside the left post to give Grain Valley a 1-0 lead in the eighth minute.
“(Brandon) Speigle passed me the ball over there, so I was like, ‘OK, I have nothing else to do, so I might as well shoot it with the outside of my foot and see what happens,’” Simpson said. “It was a nice way to start off the game.”
In the 14th minute, midfielder Nathan Racz fed a through ball between two Blue Springs defenders to a streaking Simpson, who got halfway through the penalty box and banged a shot by Williams for a two-goal lead.
“That pass was flat-on perfect,” Simpson said. “And my run was good and I just put it on the ground because it’s harder for the keeper to get to.”
Speigle, a senior forward, had a couple of chances to give Grain Valley (4-5) a sizeable cushion, but he had one shot bounce of the right post and out, while another hit the bottom of the crossbar and bounced away from the goal.
“He’s had a few of those lately and is going through one of those phases,” Nichol said, “but he’ll get there.”
After a sluggish first half, the Wildcats (0-8), who outshot the Eagles 11-10, created plenty of chances in the second half. Valentin Mpanga had a wide-open breakaway shot only to see it go wide right in the 52nd minute. To make matters a little more gut wrenching for Blue Springs, Adam Fencl and Jake Flackmiller both had goals negated by offsides calls.
“In the second half, I thought we dominated play,” Blue Springs coach Michael Palermo said. “Most aspects of the game, we were right there. It just hurts when you can’t tuck the ball away. And when we did, we got called offsides. They were so close!”
Nichol, a former Blue Springs standout, said he was able to breathe a sigh of relief, as his team was getting fatigued late in the game due to all the injuries and lack of depth.
“We lost Logan Welle 10 minutes into the game,” Nichol said. “He got kicked in the back of the knee and it got tight, so we didn’t want to risk it in a non-conference game. We’re pretty thin. But we are having some guys come back soon.”