MISHAWAKA — Northridge coach Lawrence Baltazar pursed his lips tight for a moment, about as air-tight as his Raiders’ defense had shown itself to be earlier in the day while knocking off an unbeaten defending state champion.
“To me ... it looked like we were a little bit worn out, and I hate to say it, because I don’t want to make excuses,” Baltazar finally offered with a hesitant tone after unranked Lake Central surprised his No. 10 club 2-1 in Saturday night’s Class 3A Penn Regional boys soccer championship.
While Baltazar may have hated to say it, even Indians coach Jereme Rainwater could relate to it.
“Unfortunately for Northridge, let’s be honest, Chesterton was a quality (obstacle),” Rainwater said of the giant the Raiders slayed in an afternoon semifinal that wrapped up less than five hours before the title match.
“They had to play ’em, and then they had the short turnaround,” said Rainwater, who claimed his ninth regional crown in 21 years as LC head coach. “It’s part of soccer. I’ve been on both sides of this coin, so I’m excited I was able to get a little bit of rest before I had to deal with the likes of (the Raiders). … I mean they were good players.”
Getting both a penalty-kick goal and an assist from junior Carter Stoltzfus, crisp and composed Northridge stunned the No. 3 Trojans 2-0 in the afternoon semifinal.
That came a couple hours after Lake Central had taken a 3-0 second-half lead on South Bend Adams and rolled to a 4-2 victory during the morning semifinal.
In the championship, Northridge (17-3-2) appeared an even sounder favorite on paper than Chesterton (17-1-2) might’ve appeared in the previous round, but the Indians (11-5-3) didn’t care.
Senior Rob MacNeill tallied both of Lake Central’s goals off mistakes, the first giving his team a 1-0 lead 62 seconds into the second half and the second breaking a 1-1 deadlock with 16:40 to go.
MacNeill’s initial tally went into an open net after Raider senior keeper Cameron Graber misfired on a kick-out of a spinning ball that was sent back to him by a teammate. The second came on a close-range 1-v-1 after a soft pass leaked through the Northridge defense. Graber guessed low, but a charging MacNeill pocketed the shot high.
“We made a couple errors that were uncharacteristic,” Baltazar said.
Baltazar called on the IHSAA to consider installing geographical-based regional semifinals that would take place mid-week, with regional finals on Saturdays.
“That’s the way it should be, honestly,” Baltazer said, “and we talked about this before we lost. It’s not a fair set-up. It’s just not. It’s hard to expect these kids to run and put in the same effort when you have to play a Chesterton, and then turn around and try to do it again. … They were the defending state champs, and it took every ounce we had to beat them. To me it’s just hard to recover from that fully. I still feel like we played hard, but when you have tired legs, that’s when those mistakes like tonight’s happen.”
Stoltzfus, who figured in all three Raider goals during his team’s two games on the day, netted the equalizer against the Indians.
“When we got that goal, I honestly thought we would regroup and win,” Baltazar said.
The Raiders did craft some strong threats immediately after that score and again after the Indians took the lead for good, but “we just didn’t capitalize like we should’ve,” Baltazar said. “We didn’t pass like we should’ve. We didn’t click like we should’ve.”
Northridge clicked mightily in the semis, though, enough to take down a team that had gone 38-0-4 since the start of the 2018 season.
While junior Cam Chappell never scored, his speed on the wings riddled the Trojans, including when he was fouled in the box in the 31st minute, producing Stoltzfus’ PK goal.
Freshman Micah Wieland doubled the lead to 2-0 just 1:41 before halftime when he blistered in a line drive from 18 yards out on a pass from Stoltzfus.
The Northridge defense took care of the rest against a team that entered the day averaging 5.1 goals.
With the victory, the Raiders avenged last year’s 4-3 comeback win by Chesterton.
“Last year, they scored on a PK and on a set piece just outside the box, so two of their goals were because of fouls,” Baltazar recollected. “If we don’t do that, we very well could’ve been state champs. I just reminded the guys as bad as it hurt last year – and I’m telling you, I’ve thought about that game every single day, I’ve lost sleep over it, I’ve watched the video a hundred times – let’s learn from that and not lose our composure at the end of today’s game, so I’m proud of the boys. I thought they did that.”
Baltazar was likewise proud Saturday of a senior group that closed with back-to-back Northern Lakes Conference titles, back-to-back sectional titles and a glossy 36-5-3 record over their final two years.
Those players came into a program that finished below .500 during their freshman year and went 9-6-4 in their sophomore season.
“Our seniors were awesome,” Baltazar said, pointing out that this season’s team remained elite on the heels of graduating two all-state players in Micah Cross and Jonathan Mora. “They still kept us on top. We’ll be forever grateful to them for that. Unbelievable group.”
LAKE CENTRAL 2, NORTHRIDGE 1
LC — Rob MacNeill (unassisted) 42nd minute.
N — Carter Stoltzfus (unassisted) 53rd.
LC — MacNeill (Emilio Zambrano assist) 64th.
Shots on goal: Lake Central 5, Northridge 6. Goalie saves: Lake Central — Adrian Orciuch 5; Northridge — Cameron Graber 3. Corner kicks: Lake Central 1, Northridge 2.
Records: Lake Central 11-5-3, Northridge 17-3-2.
NORTHRIDGE 2, CHESTERTON 0
N — Carter Stoltzfus (penalty kick) 31st minute.
N — Micah Wieland (Stoltzfus assist) 39th.
Shots on goal: Northridge 6, Chesterton 6. Goalie saves: Northridge — Cameron Graber 6; Chesterton — Charlie Eaton 4. Corner kicks: Northridge 1, Chesterton 2.
Other semi: Lake Central 4, SB Adams 2.
Records: Chesterton 17-1-2, Adams 9-9-1.