BY CHRIS DOBROWOLSKI
---- — ELK RAPIDS — The Elk Rapids boys soccer team has lived dangerously so far in the Division III district tournament.
After getting past Boyne City in a 1-0 win in Monday’s first round game, the Elks advanced to the district final with a thrilling 2-1 win over Grayling in Wednesday’s semifinal at Elk Rapids High School.
The game wasn’t decided until the final minutes as Andy Atkinson broke a 1-1 tie with a goal that trickled across the goal line with three minutes remaining in the second half.
“It was pretty non-climactic,” Atkinson said of his game-winner. “Hit the goalie, hit the post and rolled in. It was a big goal and a nice win. We got a lot of opportunities on goal, but we couldn’t connect.”
Indeed, the Elks dominated most of the second half — they outshot Grayling 12-1 in that time — but had nothing to show for it until Atkinson took a pass from Garrett Koss, shot it at the goal, then after a slight deflection by Grayling keeper Matt Burrell, got a favorable bounce off the post. The harrowing part of the first 37 minutes of the second half for Elk Rapids was the inability to score left the door open for Grayling to spring the upset. The Vikings had a few solid chances to take the lead — including a penalty kick in the 25th minute that was stopped by a diving Jackson Waugh in net — but the Elks held them off each time.
“That puts a lot of pressure on our defense and props to them,” said Atkinson, who had both goals for the Elks. “They got a lot of stops and got the ball up to us and we got a lot of opportunities and we finished a couple.”
Trouble scoring and Grayling’s quality attacks didn’t make for an easy night to be on the Elks’ sideline, according to head coach Nate Plum.
“I have to sit down sometimes,” Plum said. “This is a different team than we’ve had over the last couple of years. We’ve got a lot of skills, but at times we’re having trouble finding the back of the net. You could see tonight we struggled, even though we’re putting pressure on and pressure on and pressure on. That was an excellent team. They’ve come a long way, that program, and you’ve got to give them hats off. The way they can actually hold on to the ball now and move the ball, that’s excellent for them.”
The Vikings, who lost to Elk Rapids twice during the regular season in convincing fashion, put together their best showing of the three meetings and actually led for a six-minute stretch of the first half. Blake Gregory put Grayling ahead in the seventh minute when he squeezed through a trio of Elk Rapids defenders and got a shot past Waugh. It was one of three shots the Vikings had in the first half.
Elk Rapids (12-9-3) tied it in the 13th minute when Atkinson beat a Grayling defender to the ball and went in for a breakaway.
The win kept the Elks’ hopes alive for another deep run in the postseason. Last year Elk Rapids advanced to the semifinals, where it was eliminated in a 2-1 loss to Williamston.
“You know what, you get into this tournament play and anything can happen,” said Plum. “It happened to us last year. We were an excellent team last year. It’s all about effort after a certain point. What team is really going to come out and give their strongest effort. That’s what tournament play is about. (Grayling) put out a very strong effort. They have some good players and it showed. I’m glad for the victory. I’m glad we found the goal and we get to play another day and we get to keep working on putting the ball in the back of the net. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”