Olberholtzer’s goal the difference in 1-0 win

Sometimes in a downpour, and always with slippery ground underfoot, the Forest Lake boys soccer team hosted Class AA No. 4 Duluth East in a much-anticipated clash of Section 7AA rivals Aug. 27. The Rangers sought revenge for a number of past playoff defeats, and though they had to grind all 80 minutes to get it, a second half goal by senior striker Jordan Oberholtzer held up for a 1-0 victory that will upset the general order in the section.

Man advantage

The Rangers and Greyhounds fought through intermittent rain, including one particular fierce, whipping shower near the halftime break, but neither side could break through for a goal before the interval. The turning point came in the 51st minute, when Hound defender Cy Goerdt was shown his second yellow card of the game for a foul on a Ranger breakaway. The subsequent red card left the Hounds a man down for the last half hour.

Junior midfielder Carter Thiesfeld took the free kick that followed, but his low effort was saved by Anthony McHenry, and though he could only parry, the rebound skipped past a charging wall of Rangers — junior forward Isaiah Dresel coming closest — to be cleared by the Hound defense.

In the first minutes after going to 10 players, the Hounds kept up their famously aggressive strategy, sometimes placing every outfield player in the Rangers’ half when they went on the attack. Jack Mitchell worked his way behind the Ranger defense in the 53rd minute but senior goalkeeper Gunnar Linn stopped his shot dead with an extended arm.

The numerical disadvantage soon began to tell on the visitors, though, and Ranger attacks became more frequent, particularly viable the long through balls that seem to be their greatest strength. One perfectly placed pass by junior midfielder Breen Eiden seemed to result in a goal by junior forward Austin Latessa in the 58th minute, but the Rangers’ celebrations were cut short at the sight of the linesman’s flag raised to rule the play offside.

“Our kids are fit, and they play with confidence,” Tomas said. “We know we can put pressure on anyone.”

Less than three minutes later, however, the Rangers got the goal that counted. Thiesfeld played a grass-cutting pass to Oberholtzer, who held possession under heavy pressure and a slide tackle from Hound captain Zach Lanigan and broke for the goal. McHenry charged and Hound defender Bailey Frantz closed fast enough to put an elbow in Oberholtzer’s back, but as the three bodies came together, the Ranger was able to finesse a shot inside the right-hand post.

“[Thiesfeld] has the best vision,” Oberholtzer said. “I knew he’d get the ball to me, it was just up to me to finish it.”

Oberholtzer, McHenry and Frantz collided again a minute later, with Frantz succeeding in forcing Oberholtzer to shoot wide this time.

“[Duluth East] never gives up on a play,” Oberholtzer said. “They’re different from other teams; you get by a kid and then he’s right on your back. They also put up a great fight.”

The Hounds tried continuously to force attacks down their right wing, but senior midfielder Victor Rizzo, shut down that side of the field. Their best shot at an equalizer came when they earned a free kick about 25 yards from goal with less than a minute on the clock, but after a great deal of strategizing among both sides, the final effort was well over the bar.

“The man down helped, obviously, but this East team gets in your face, it doesn’t matter,” head coach Joe Tomas said. “They’re so scrappy.”

Section shift

The Hounds knocked the Rangers out of the playoffs in the Section 7AA semifinals last year and in the 2017 final, both times on northern turf. The Rangers’ head-to-head victory means that, should the paths cross in this year’s section tournament, the game would probably be played here, though there is, of course, most of a season still to be played. As if to mark the “new day” in the section, a rainbow appeared over the Ranger bleachers at the end of the game.

The Rangers have won three playoff games across the last two seasons, but all three have been played on the road. The Rangers’ last home playoff games came in 2015, when they beat Cambridge-Isanti in a quarterfinal before being upset in a semifinal by — who else? — Duluth East.

“We have to walk before we can run, but today was a big step toward our goals,” Tomas said.

The Hounds won Section 7AA over Blaine in the final last year, but the balance of power seems to be shifting. The Rangers have beaten both of last year’s finalists already this season, but have also lost to Andover, which confirmed its status as a title threat by beating Centennial 1-0 the day of the Ranger-Hound clash. Tomas made a quick exit from Forest Lake to scout that game. Centennial is new to the section this year, having gone to state as Section 5AA champions last year — indeed, the Cougars met the Hounds in the state quarterfinals.

The Rangers will head to Centennial on Sept. 21, their only remaining regular season game against a section opponent - beyond that game,  any hypothesizing as to playoff outcomes will have to be put on hold until October. Like most Ranger teams, the soccer squad will play through a Suburban East Conference schedule against teams assigned to metro-based sections, beginning with a home tilt against Woodbury Thursday at 5 p.m. Woodbury will be tough out: The Royals handed Andover a loss late last week. The Rangers were fourth of nine in a stacked SEC that included the eventual state champions, Stillwater, last season. Tomas hopes to place third or better this year in what is now a 10-team league with the addition of Irondale.

In a non-conference, non-section game on Aug. 29, the Rangers were beaten at Hill-Murray 5-3; Thiesfeld accounted for all the Rangers’ goals. Besides the Woodbury game, the Rangers (2-2-0 overall) will also head to Chisago Lakes Saturday at noon. On Tuesday, Sept. 10, the Rangers’ schedule gets no easier: They will visit Stillwater for a 7 p.m. kickoff.

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