WASILLA - It wasn't the prettiest game the Juneau-Douglas High School boys soccer team has played this season.
But the Crimson Bears will take the 2-1 victory over the West Anchorage Eagles in Thursday's opening round of the state tournament at Wasilla High School's Veteran Memorial Stadium.
In a game that seemed to bog down at times in the middle, with neither team crisp in its passing, Juneau took an early two-goal lead and made it hold up even after a West penalty-kick goal late in the first half.
"That wasn't our best game," Juneau coach Gary Lehnhart said. "We played frantic in the second half and I think that was our youth showing through. Matt Walton (Juneau's sophomore goalkeeper) was super steady in back. He didn't have a lot to do, but he played well. Matt Kern (a junior defender) also did a great job."
The Crimson Bears (16-0-2 overall) will face the Skyview Panthers (10-1-0) in a semifinal game today.
Juneau took the early lead when junior defender Danny Hernandez scored in the eighth minute on a long arcing shot after a throw-in from junior defender Ian Brinkman. The shot appeared to deflect in off the head of West defender Matt Timme, but Hernandez said he didn't see the score.
"I had a little touch out, but I didn't see it," Hernandez said. "I turned around and saw the goalie's hands go up.
"For our team, once someone gets the first goal our intensity goes up and everyone gets pumped."
West goalkeeper Joe Quinn made a nice diving save of a shot by Jamaal Bailey three minutes later. But Juneau converted its next scoring chance in the game's 19th minute after one of the best passes of the game.
Juneau senior midfielder Alex Newton took a ball up the middle, then fed it over to senior midfielder Nathan Schroeder on the left. Schroeder settled the ball, then beat a defender and sent in a shot that Quinn had no chance to stop.
"That goal was totally based on that pass," said Schroeder, who missed most of last season because of a concussion. "It was a beautiful pass and the team worked around it.
"I was pretty pumped up about it. I was just hoping we make the final, and I could do whatever we needed to make it to the final."
The Crimson Bears made a couple more good runs in on Quinn, but the West keeper made two leaping saves where he plucked the ball out of heavy traffic in the middle.
With about 10 minutes left in the first half, the game's tempo changed.
First, Newton was given a yellow card (warning) in the 31st minute. Then, five minutes later, Timme was given a yellow card that turned into a second yellow, and then a red card (ejection) when he went off the field and kept arguing an uncalled offsides violation.
With Timme sent off, West (4-6-2) had to play the rest of the game with only 10 players while Juneau still had 11. But it seemed to increase West's intensity on offense.
"I felt they got more pressure, there was more pressure on me," Walton said of West's offense after the red card.
"They definitely stepped it up after they lost a man," said Kern, who was named Juneau's player of the game by tournament organizers. "We got complacent, but we picked it up at the end."
In the last minute of the first half, West scored on a penalty kick after a tripping call; Lehnhart could be heard from across the field telling the referee, "That is an absolute gift!" Quinn quickly ran up the field, grabbed the ball from Walton and took the penalty kick before the referees could change their mind.
"I misanticipated," said Walton, who was awarded Juneau's lunchbox by Lehnhart for coming to work in the game. "I wasn't set when the ref blew his whistle, and I just misjudged it."
"As soon as they scored the penalty kick and it got close, we stepped up," Schroeder said. "We wanted to make sure the other team knew we were still playing with 11 players."
In the second half, West kept up the attack early. But the Juneau defensive line of Hernandez, Brinkman, Kern and Richard Isett did a good job of turning back West's attacks.
The Crimson Bears also got lucky when in the game's 52nd minute, when Omar Rojas got loose on a breakaway but pulled his shot wide right.
"I was a little bit nervous, but I figured I had my angles cut off and I was so happy to see that ball roll by," Walton said. "Our defense was really amazing. Our communication level was really good."
"I don't think our middle broke down, but West pressed a lot more," Kern said. "Danny, Ian and I stuck together. It was good to get a win and we can always work on things in the next game."
Juneau will play Skyview at 4 p.m. today at Wasilla. Skyview beat Dimond 2-1 in a first-round game Thursday.
In Thursday's other first-round games, Service beat Colony 3-0 and Chugiak beat Grace Christian 4-1. Service and Chugiak will play at 6 p.m. in today's other semifinal.
If Juneau wins today, then it's on to a fifth straight state championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday at Wasilla. The Crimson Bears have won two of the previous four state title games. A Juneau loss today sends the Crimson Bears into the third-fifth place game at noon Saturday at Wasilla.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.