Staunch Defense, 2 Long Shot Goals As Trojans Tie with Okemos

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

East Lansing Varsity Soccer took on Okemos on May 5.

East Lansing girls soccer Head Coach Jeff Lyons didn’t want to outright say he was happy to have tied.

But after the Trojans defended and dueled rival Okemos to a 2-2 draw at the East Lansing Soccer Complex on Wednesday, Lyons couldn’t ignore the previous 80 minutes of soccer from his team.

Despite the result being one usually causing coaches to ponder the difference between stalemate and victory, Lyons understood Wednesday’s performance was a promising one, independent of the outcome.

“Hand ’em credit because we haven’t even tied Okemos in over 12 years,” Lyons said postgame.

Following Wednesday’s tie, the Trojans are 4-3-1 (W-L-T) on the season, Lyons said, a better record than maybe even he anticipated this season. In 2020, East Lansing had nine senior starters slated to play, he said. In 2021, the Trojans returned four players, total. Following some close early season losses, Lyons finds this team in a position even he didn’t necessarily expect to be in.

And it’s a position the Trojans had secured mostly through valiant defense on Wednesday.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

East Lansing Goalkeeper Gabby Henderson

Okemos controlled possession and consistently worked the ball from midfield up to the attacking third near the goal East Lansing was defending, but the buildup play rarely resulted in a scoring chance that posed any real threat. 

The lynchpin in the center of the Okemos attack was sophomore Abby Jagar, who got plenty of attention from the Trojans’ main central defenders: Grace Horton and Ellan Horgan. The sophomore and senior, respectively, deftly stepped in to intercept or deflect centering passes coming to Jagar from the wings. When she did get the ball, Horton and Horgan worked to prevent Jagar from turning and shooting.

And aiding the defensive efforts for East Lansing were the wings and central midfielders. Both sophomore Hannah Wakulsky and junior Payton Baker controlled the deep midfield, aiding in the defense against Jagar and deftly kick-starting the counter attack once possession was won.

On the wing, where Lyons notes East Lansing has the most depth, a rotating cast came in and out to crash up and down the sidelines in the Trojans 3-5-2 formation. Molly Conlin, Emma Kreft, Allie Mayes, and Kali Francisco all took shifts marauding up and down the wings.

“I know that’s one she wants back,” Lyons said postgame.

For as strong of a defensive showing as it was for East Lansing, the Trojans offensive edge was at times dulled or even absent.

But even without the possession or pressure that Okemos consistently put on, the Trojans still got two individual goal-scoring sparks in the matter of a couple minutes.

The two goals Okemos did score came in the momentary scrambles after set pieces; one headed in after East Lansing goalkeeper Gabby Henderson punched a free kick straight upwards, and another scuffed through Henderson’s legs from about 8 yards out.

Five minutes after Okemos had finally scored the game’s first goal,  junior forward Soraya Timms got the ball with a defender on her back, around 30 yards from the Okemos goal. East Lansing badly needed a jolt after conceding following nearly an hour of pristine defense.

Timms took a touch, turned left, and started to drive at the net. With the ball coming to her right foot and a defender on her left hip, Timms drove her right insole through the ball and buried a 25-yard shot past Okemos goalkeeper Elena Papapolymerou. In the 59th minute, Timms had knotted the score at 1-1.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Soraya Timms stands on the field.

As Papapolymerou extracted the ball from the back of her net, Timms turned and ran back to her teammates, pumping her fist as the pack celebrated and ran back for the ensuing kickoff among the cheers from East Lansing fans.

Okemos quickly gave away possession and in the 62nd minute, Wakulsky lined up to take a free kick from around 20 yards out, almost straight away. As Wakulsky sized up the potential free kick or shot and as the referee sorted out the foul, the Okemos players formed the usual defensive wall, but quite close.

A few fans shouted out, “Ask for more space, Hannah!” Whether Wakulsky heard them is not known, but she did look up and ask the referee to move the wall back, which he did.

On the whistle, Wakulsky took a couple of long strides and, similarly to Timms, drove her right foot through the ball. Wakulsky’s kick easily cleared the wall, and Papapolymerou’s outstretched hands, deflecting down off the crossbar and bouncing into the back of the net.

In the span of less than three minutes, the Trojans had stormed ahead.

“So I’m not saying we’re happy with the tie,” Lyons said, “because we had the lead.”

It was looking like a 2-1 win could be on for EL, when only 10 minutes before Okemos had just taken over the momentum and the lead.

But as quickly as East Lansing stormed ahead, Okemos nabbed a goal right back in the scramble after a corner kick.

And following the goal-scoring flurry in the middle of the second half, Okemos reasserted control over the game, and the Trojans responded in kind defensively. Okemos tried and tried and tried to work a shot open. And each time, an East Lansing defender eventually stepped in to clear the ball away. And after letting in a pair of goals, Henderson became a wall in net when the ball did come her, batting down shots and scooping up ambitious attacking passes.

In a game the Trojans could’ve lost 1-0 or worse, against a team they’ve gotten accustomed to losing to, they stormed ahead to lead. And though they couldn’t secure the win, they protected the tie.

And though it might not count for anything in particular on paper, it certainly does count for something for this team.

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