Your Prep Sports
CEDAR RAPIDS – Despite an unfavorable outcome, Liberty High successfully served notice that it is a program that will soon have its day.
The 10th-ranked Lightning stood toe to toe with perennial state tournament participant Cedar Rapids Prairie for 71-and-a-half scoreless minutes, but a Prairie penalty kick with 8:30 left ended Liberty’s season one match short of the state tournament, 1-0, in a Class 3A boys’ soccer substate final Wednesday night at John Wall Field.
“I am very proud of this team,” Liberty High coach Sonny Travis said. “They have come light years since I got here three years ago and a lot of credit to our captains. A lot of credit to our senior class who just, every day, just got better and better.”
After Monday’s substate semifinal victory over North Scott, Liberty learned senior goalkeeper Jaxyn Logan – who totaled 1,260 minutes and 62 saves this season – had suffered a concussion and would not be available against Prairie.
In stepped freshman Conley Sunblad, whose remarkable play on one of the state’s biggest stages showed the Liberty goalkeeper position will be in good hands beyond this season.
“We were hoping to win it for (Logan),” Travis said. “But you know, Conley Sunblad stepped in as a ninth grader and just did a tremendous job tonight. Just couldn’t ask for anything more. He played with a lot of courage.”
Sunblad was responsible for the save of the night just 16 minutes into the match when he made a diving one-handed deflection with his left hand when it appeared Prairie had a clear path to the back of the net.
“I was amazed,” junior defender Forrest Saul said. “I think that was a very difficult game for him to come in and start and he did amazing.”
After a scoreless first half, the start of the second was delayed by 90+ minutes due to a weather delay that included a tornado warning.
Neither team displayed any rust from the extended break as the immediate action was frenetic.
“It can be a disadvantage,” Saul said. “But with the stakes this high, we really bring it together.”
The match appeared destined for overtime until Liberty High was whistled for a foul in the penalty box while jostling for possession of the ball with Prairie sophomore midfielder Gavin Lewis, who was on the ground.
“To me, I thought the call was going to be a dangerous play on him because he was on the ground and flailing on the ground, kicking,” Travis said. “And I thought, ‘It is a dangerous play on them.’ So I was very surprised a PK was called. But as I told my players, ‘Life isn’t fair sometimes’.”
Prairie senior Blake Halleran drilled the penalty kick for his 10th goal of the season.
The state berth is the fifth in seven seasons for Prairie (16-3).
“Obviously when you track their season, they don’t get a lot of goals scored on them,” Prairie Coach Curt Lewis said of Liberty. “We got one on them when we played in the regular season (a 1-0 Prairie win on May 3), but we kept watching Kennedy beat them and they took (Iowa City) West to (penalty) kicks, obviously our game, so we knew that there were some things that we could do. We kind of changed our approach a little bit with this game and tried something a little bit different where we tried to wear them down a little bit and played a little more direct than we usually do.”
Liberty High (15-4) graduates just seven seniors from its roster of 27 players, which should allow the Lightning to resume their charge next season toward their first state tournament appearance after a establishing a new plateau in wins and even spending some time ranked No. 1 in the program’s fourth season.
“I think it is going to give our players a lot of confidence knowing they can play with anybody,” Travis said. “And we have. We had a great win over West. We have had 15 wins. People are moving to North Liberty, so I am pretty excited about the future of Liberty High School soccer.”