LACEY – As Nick Salazar sprinted up the right sideline, redemption was on his mind.
The North Thurston junior had missed an opportunity to score on a breakaway during last week’s Class 2A District IV boys soccer semifinal game against Aberdeen.
So when the chance came again late in Tuesday’s 2A first-round state playoff game against Sehome – and a potential winning goal, at that – he delivered.
Salazar’s breakaway goal from 10 yards out in the 74th minute gave the Rams a thrilling, 2-1 victory over the Mariners of Bellingham at South Sound Stadium. It sent North Thurston to the state quarterfinals for the first time in eight years.
“I’m happy I put that one away now,” Salazar said. “This was the first time North Thurston has been to state in a while, and I’m happy our team can bring it.”
North Thurston will face Fife, a 3-0 winner over Foster on Tuesday, in Saturday’s quarterfinal at a location and time to be determined.
Tuesday’s game was the first time the Rams (12-5-1) have reached state since 2005, and the first time they have advanced to the quarterfinals since 2003 – when that team placed fourth in Class 3A.
Playing in a state playoff game was a monumental step for a program that had a two-win season just three years ago.
North Thurston coach Chris Knudson was almost at a loss for words about his team’s win.
“It validates what we’ve been doing,” he said. “North Thurston belongs in state. It’s nice to be back.”
Prior to the game, Gary Dunn, a former longtime Rams coach who led them to the state title in 1990, and Yelm coach Matt Herrera, who played in the Rams’ previous state playoff game in 2005, left voicemails on Knudson’s phone for him to play to the team during pregame.
The teams were scoreless at halftime, but North Thurston turned up its game in the final 40 minutes. The Rams kept right up with the bigger, quicker and more physical Mariners with their hustle and winning more 50/50 balls.
During the first half, Sehome generated more opportunities for itself with its quick midfield, led by Patrick Cole, but the Rams’ defense knocked a few impending shots out of the goal box when the Mariners were knocking on the door.
North Thurston senior goalkeeper Forrest Graeber had one of his best games of the season with five saves.
The message from players and coaches during halftime was simple: Play your game.
The Rams answered with two goals after Sehome (14-3-4) got on the scoreboard first. The Mariners’ goal came in the 46th minute from Alexander Kochman, who scored past Graeber from 10 yards out on a breakaway after receiving a pass from Cole.
But North Thurston found answers with Salazar, Zack Ismael and Graeber.
Ismael scored his 19th goal of the season in the 54th minute to tie the game at 1. He was awarded a free kick after being knocked to the gr ound, and converted from 25 yards out, sailing his shot high and out of reach of Sehome keeper Andrew Ronson.
Salazar’s goal started with a clearance near the goal box from defender Ben Hasan, with Salazar racing down the right side. Knudson called his team’s defensive effort “the best they played all year.”
“We were fortunate to get a breakaway goal and fortunate to keep their barrage of shots out of the net,” Knudson said.
With the sun beaming into his eyes for much of the second half, Graeber made clutch saves when the Northwest Conference champions were looking for the equalizer. He finished with five saves – including one on a laser shot midway through the first half that bounced off his hands, but he was able to grab it before another Sehome strike.
Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 email@example.com www.theolympian.com/prepsportsblog