Columbus High boys soccer overcame some early nerves, began to take control of the match 10 minutes in and capitalized on that control with two second-half goals for a 2-0 sub-state win over Elkhorn Mount Michael on Saturday.
Victor Salazar scored his second of the season on a hopeful pass from Garrett Esch 15 minutes after halftime. Leading scorer Ivan Lopez notched his 20th of the year on another Esch setup with 10 minutes remaining.
Though Columbus came into 2019 with more hope than hype after graduating more than half of its offensive production, a mix of veterans and newcomers have pushed the Discoverers to their third state tournament in four years and the 13th overall in school history.
Columbus now prepares for an 8 p.m. match Thursday against 14-4 Omaha Gross.
"Preseason, I didn't think we'd be this good," coach John Arlt admitted after the match. "Honestly, we struggled a little bit later in the year, we've dealt with some injuries, but this team, I said it earlier in the year, we're pretty close.
"They might be one of the closer groups we've had. They're not as talented as some other Columbus teams, but they're really close-knit."
It was a back-and-forth affair through the first couple minutes due perhaps to some playoff anxiety for a team that features five underclassmen in the starting lineup.
When those nerves went away, Columbus began creating more chances. The teams went into the intermission scoreless, with the Discoverers leading in shots 5-0 and in shots on frame 2-0.
That momentum carried over to the second half where Esch had the first chance in the 45th minute but put it on the side of the net after trying to tuck it in on the near post. Salazar finally broke the tie when Esch collected a lob into the box and sent a blind pass to the center while falling backward on pressure from his defender.
Salazar wasn't quite past his mark but had a step on his man and used that step to fire the pass to the back of the net.
"I always knew that if Garrett or Avery (McMeekin) sends the ball through, coach always said to chase the ball. When I saw Garrett passing the ball, I thought of coach and just started running," Salazar said. "I just saw the ball, and I kicked it."
Lopez essentially put the game away in the 70th minute, fed on a play with another Esch pass. This time though, Esch knew where he was going with his cross after hearing Lopez call for the ball.
The Mount Michael keeper had been taken out of the play defending Esch at the right post leaving the net mostly wide open. It still took Lopez making a play, scrambling to his feet after having his initial shot blocked. He did exactly that, setting off a celebration from teammates realizing state was well within reach.
"I haven't been able to play much for the last three games. It was hard times. I wanted to score. I wanted to get out there and score," Lopez said. "To score today, gave me a really good feeling. Now I want to score at state."
Columbus lost to Crete 1-1 (5-3) in a shootout last year, also in the district final.
"This is way better," Lopez said. "I wanted it so bad for those seniors. To come out here today and do it with the kids I've played with my whole life, and score for them, it means a lot."
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.