PUYALLUP — Members of the Monroe High School boys soccer team sat slumped on the bench, some with their heads in their hands in disbelief.
A game that began in such stunning fashion ended in an equally stunning manner, but unfortunately for Monroe it means the Bearcats’ quest for a state title is over.
The Mercer Island Islanders scored twice in second-half extra extra time, and the Bearcats suffered a heartbreaking 3-2 defeat in the 3A state semifinals Friday afternoon at Sparks Stadium.
Monroe, the No. 8 seed, led 2-0 inside the first five minutes of the contest. The Bearcats held onto the lead until after the game clock was stopped at 78 minutes, when timekeeping is officially turned over to the referee. But goals from Mercer Island’s Brady Gilroy and Leo Berkley left Monroe in shock.
“The first 10 minutes I though we were killing them,” Monroe senior forward and co-captain Caden Kaasa said. “We came out strong, but at the end we had some letdowns on set pieces. It was really hard.”
Samir Lumba also scored for 12th-seeded Mercer Island (14-3-2), which advanced to face No. 2 Lakeside for the title at 3 p.m. Saturday at Sparks Stadium.
Brayan Ojeda-Gaspar and Reid Schaeffer scored for eighth-seeded Monroe (17-4-1), which faces No. 14 O’Dea for third at 10 a.m. Saturday at Sparks Stadium.
“We played with heart and desire, and with the bigger picture in mind these boys know what we’re trying to do as a program, the story that we’re trying to write,” said Monroe coach Korey Hope, who’s overseen a remarkable turnaround in the Monroe program since taking over in the 2018-19 school year. “I think they feel the weight of that, so that can make it more challenging. It’s our first time here as a program in 20 years, so they carried a lot of weight. I can’t say enough about the group, they’re spectacular, and we couldn’t be more proud of this year.”
Monroe, which won its only state title in 2001 when it beat Mercer Island 1-0 on penalty kicks, spent the entire second half trying to fend off the Islanders as the Bearcats clung to a 2-1 lead. Though Mercer Island had the lion’s share of the possession, Monroe did just enough defensively to prevent that possession from turning into clear-cut chances.
But the Islanders were dangerous from set pieces throughout the game, and that threat proved to be the difference. First, after Monroe cleared a corner kick, the Islanders reset by playing the ball back to Remington Frederick on the left. Frederick delivered a pinpoint cross that was headed in by Gilroy to tie it at 2-2.
With overtime looming, the Islanders snatched it at the end. Little more than a minute later Mercer Island had a free kick near midfield. Cooper Gersch’s long ball was headed on by Kaleb Rawson, then it was headed in by Berkley as the game’s result flipped in an instant.
“Credit to Mercer Island, they try to get the ball on the ground and play,” Hope said. “But when it came down to the last few minutes they played very direct, and they deserve a lot of credit for the way they pushed. It’s so exciting, two goals in the last couple minutes to go to the state championship game? Those boys are going to remember that forever.”
Mercer Island’s finish was a mirror image of Monroe’s start, as the Bearcats grabbed an early stranglehold in the fifth minute.
First, the Bearcats had the ball on the left with little sign of danger. However, a shot was deflected out to the right side of the penalty box, where Ojeda-Gaspar was all alone. Ojeda-Gaspar put the ball behind stranded goalkeeper Jackson Barker to make it 1-0.
Then before the Monroe crowd was done cheering the first goal the Bearcats had a second. A mere 53 seconds later Kaasa nodded the ball around his marker and was free on goal. Kaasa had the chance to shoot himself, but instead unselfishly squared for Schaeffer to tap into the unguarded net to give Monroe a stunning 2-0 lead.
“I think it was our energy,” Kaasa said about the key to the quick start. “Everyone was super happy to be there, this was the first semifinal we ever competed in, so it was energy I think.”
The rest of the first half was a scrappy affair, with Monroe fouls in their own half giving Mercer Island dangerous chances on free kicks. The Islanders cashed in during the 19th minute when, on a free kick from 30 yards, Lumba powered a perfect shot into the upper-right corner to cut the deficit to one. Mercer Island had other chances off set pieces, with the most dangerous coming in the 38th minute when Hawkins Sanborn put a free header wide, but it remained 2-1 going into the second half.