Junior Zach Bylsma isn't a big player and his skinny legs may be his defining physical characteristic, but the co-captain of the Jackson High School soccer team couldn't have been bigger Friday night.
In a crucial Wesco South tilt against Mariner at Everett Memorial Stadium, Bylsma was in the right place at the right time on multiple occasions to lift first-place Jackson to a 2-1 triumph over the second-place Marauders.
His bones were front and center exactly when the team needed them in the final minutes of the game. After a Mariner corner kick in the 74th minute pulled Jackson keeper Armando Huerta off his line, the ball squirted past the sophomore goalie and appeared destined for the net before it was deflected clear by Bylsma standing on the goal line.
"I knew that Armando was going to go up and make a play on the ball," Bylsma said. "I just got my body on the ball and hoped it doesn't go past me."
Bylsma also scored what proved to be the game-winning goal a few minutes before his big stop. After a Mariner penalty deep in its own end, Brady Witsoe set up for a free kick from near the corner. Bylsma noticed that Mariner hadn't put a defender on the near post in similar situations earlier in the game and called for Witsoe to send it his way.
The kick went in the air to Bylsma, who flicked a header past Mariner goalie David Kelly. It wasn't his first goal of the year, having scored in a few blowouts so far.
"(I haven't scored any) that were that important," he said. "That was my biggest."
With three games remaining in the regular season, the victory gives the Timberwolves (10-1 league, 11-2 overall) at least a share of the Wesco South crown, and Friday night's win means a two-game series sweep, which gives Jackson the tiebreaker and the No. 1 seed into the upcoming 4A district playoffs.
"We're sitting pretty good right now," Jackson coach Brett Norton said
If not for Bylsma, the T-Wolves' league lead could have been just three points instead of nine. The Marauders (7-4, 7-6) jumped out to an early 1-0 edge and controlled play for most of the first half. In the early going, Mariner carried itself with the swagger of a team with its eyes on the league title.
In the 11th minute, Mariner's Aleksey Gubarik collected a long pass from Elmer Delgado. With his back to the goal, the Marauder senior forward fought off a Jackson defender and dribbled into the penalty box before lifting a finesse shot past Huerta that bounced off the near post and trickled into the goal.
After the game, Mariner coach Vince DeSimone, in his typical animated fashion, gave credit to Jackson for playing well, but said he felt his team was better overall during this game.
"We pretty much dominated the whole game," DeSimone said. "We just couldn't put the ball in the net. Jackson keeps on getting lucky ... until we meet them again."
That next meeting, if it comes, would be in the playoffs. DeSimone said he expects his team to make a deep run in the postseason despite, at best, having to settle for the league's No. 2 seed. Mariner needs to finish in the top three in the South standings to advance.
"We know we are going to make the playoffs, no doubt about it," the Mariner coach said. "It's just getting there and staying there."
Jackson got the tying goal in the 33rd minute when Carlos Martinez controlled a ball deep into the corner and played to back to a streaking Julio Ortiz, who drilled a shot to the far corner of the net before Kelly could react.
In just his third varsity game, the freshman Ortiz recorded his first points.
"He's been playing so well (in practice) I've been rewarding him with time," Norton said. "For him to get that goal is huge."
The win means Jackson can relax and prepare for the postseason during its final games.
"We're really excited," Norton said. "We've just got to assess some injuries we got tonight."
Jackson senior forward David Loeung had to be carried off the field with a knee injury suffered in the 25th minute. Norton said the team trainer described it as a "wait-and-see" situation.
Jon Saperstein covers high school sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @jonsap and contact him at email@example.com.
At Everett Memorial Stadium
Goals--Aleksey Gubarik (M) 1, Julio Ortiz (J) 1, Zach Bylsma (J) 1. Assists--Elmer Delgado (M) 1, Carlos Martinez (J) 1, Brady Witsoe (J) 1. Goalkeepers--Mariner: David Kelly. Jackson: Armando Huerta. Records--Mariner 7-4 league, 7-6 overall. Jackson 10-1, 11-2.
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