By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
SNOHOMISH — It was late in the Snohomish High School boys soccer team’s 4A state quarterfinal game against Skyline on Saturday when Blake Crutchfield showed exactly what the Panthers had missed.
Crutchfield, the master of the long throw-in, heaved a ball goalward that ended up in the Skyline net for what proved to be the game-winning score in a 2-1 triumph.
It was a reminder of how important Crutchfield, who missed half the season because of injury, is to Snohomish. And Crutchfield isn’t the only key player the Panthers have lost to serious injury, as injuries have characterized a season that tested coach Dan Pingrey’s ability to improvise.
Snohomish vs. Kentwood, Friday, 8 p.m. at Sparks Stadium, Puyallup
However, not only have the Panthers overcome those injuries to reach the state semifinals, where they face Kentwood at 8 p.m. tonight at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup. Those injuries played an important role in Snohomish developing into a final-four team.
“It’s been hard, but we have players to replace others if we need to,” senior goalkeeper Ryan Peters said. “We definitely have a deepness to our bench.”
Senior defender Dekotah Keough agreed: “This squad has a lot of depth, so we can deal with it. We’d like to be healthy, but it’s not something we were damaged by, we can deal with the injuries. Now almost everyone is healthy and we’re ready to go.”
However, it wasn’t always a sure thing the Panthers had the depth to compensate.
Pingrey has seen a lot during his 16 season as the coach of the Snohomish boys soccer team, including state titles in 2000 and 2006. But the injuries the Panthers have had to deal with this season are as bad as he’s ever experienced.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had this many injuries on the squad, especially starters,” Pingrey said. “I’ve had years before where there’s been a chunk injuries. This is the first time there’s been three or four key injuries. It definitely got our attention.”
Among those injuries:
n A knee ligament sprain to Crutchfield, a junior who not only is a key figure at the center of Snohomish’s defense, but is also a large source of the Panthers’ offense with his long throws.
n Senior Jose Gaspar’s broken ankle, suffered during the preseason, which required surgery. Gaspar, slated to be a starting forward, hasn’t played a minute this season.
n Sophomore forward Brennan Judy’s broken ankle, which caused one of the team’s top scorers from last season to miss a large chunk of the season.
Those were in addition to the smaller nagging ailments that have sidelined players for a game or two.
But what those injuries did was force the Panthers to develop depth. Pingrey did not believe he had a deep team at the beginning of the season — “If you’d asked me at the start of the season I would have said we’re 12 deep,” Pingrey said.
But the injuries compelled Pingrey to use players he normally wouldn’t have, and those players proved capable of handling the job. Sophomore Eric Jones moved from central midfield to center back while Crutchfield was out, and he performed so well that Pingrey considered leaving Jones on defense even after Crutchfield returned. Freshman forward Jason Fairhurst, who was thrust in to the lineup after Judy was injured, became one of the team’s top scorers and has remained in the starting lineup even though Judy is back. Junior Josh Dombal and pint-sized freshman Coleman French have given the team solid minutes in midfield. And several others have stepped up to fill a role, prompting Pingrey to now declare the Panthers 17 deep.
“It’s been difficult, but we haven’t made it become an issue,” Pingrey said. “The best part about it is it’s been the old cliche of, ‘Next man up.’ As a result our bench is fantastic. Guys have had to play a lot of games, they’ve played in big games, they’ve had to hold onto 1-0 and 2-1 wins. They’re battle tested, and our bench is much deeper.”
Snohomish has weathered the injuries, and the Panthers head into the semifinals at full strength for the first time this season. Crutchfield and Judy both have their legs under them after returning during the district tournament, Gaspar has been cleared to return and is available tonight, and the other bumps and bruises aren’t enough to keep players out of the final four.
“It definitely gives us a boost, knowing everyone is at their full potential when we need them most,” Peters said.
But the Panthers have their work cut out for them in the semis. Kentwood (15-2-3) was the District 3/4 champion, and the Conquerors are the top-ranked Region V team in the National Soccer Coaches Association of American poll (Snohomish is ranked sixth in the region). Senior Brandyn Bangsund and freshman Mason Rudolph lead the attack for a Kentwood team that is seeking the first state championship in school history. The Conquerors last reached the final four in 2011, finishing third.
Meanwhile, Snohomish (18-2) is hoping to improve upon last year’s final-four performance, when the Panthers lost twice to finish fourth.
“It feels like a second chance,” Keough said. “It’s good to be back, we have to take care of business this time.”
At least the Panthers now know that while the opposition may stand in their way, injuries won’t.