Fiery Rangers soar in landmark victory

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Forest Park’s Sam Russell celebrated after scoring the Rangers’ first goal in the 33rd minute of Thursday night’s Class 1A boys soccer regional against Sullivan in Fort Branch. The Rangers added three more scores in the second half and won 4-0, seizing the program’s first regional victory and a date with No. 4 Evansville Mater Dei in Saturday’s championship at 1 p.m. EDT. For a gallery of photos, click here.

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

FORT BRANCH — He doesn’t reference a memorable scene from a sports film or stoically recite a passage from a famous political speech. Those are far too ordinary, and Sam Russell is far too zany.

In fact, Russell may be the only player in Indiana to ever use SpongeBob SquarePants as inspiration.

During the regular season, he introduced his teammates to a scene from the show in which a sailor fish — ironic in its own right — must prove his toughness to gain entry into the Salty Spitoon restaurant.

“How tough am I?” Sam Russell asked rhetorically, quoting the episode. “I had a bowl of nails for breakfast this morning — without any milk.”

The motivational source is bizarre. It’s unconventional. Yet it’s remarkably analogous to the grit showed by Russell and the Rangers in Thursday night’s Class 1A regional semifinal, as they suppressed Sullivan for all 80 minutes in their 4-0 triumph, seizing Forest Park boys soccer’s first regional victory in program history.

“We just tried to play our hard, physical game,” Russell said. “There have been times during the soccer season when we have not had that intensity and physicality that we should have. And we’re starting to learn that bringing it to every game shows results.”

It could be attributed to the eight days the Rangers (9-8-2) had off between their sectional championship and Thursday’s regional or simply the tournament’s ability to spark a team. Whatever the cause,  Forest Park “came out with a lot of energy, the fire, ready to go” from the opening kickoff, Ranger coach Brent Sicard said.

“I told the guys, ‘Let’s make history here.’ Never won a regional game. Seize the opportunity,” Sicard said.

Tempel

Everywhere on the field, from Cody Tempel securing the back line to Dakota Begle governing the central midfield to Adam Braunecker pestering Golden Arrow defenders up top, the Rangers disrupted any offensive rhythm Sullivan (10-9) tried to create.

Other Rangers, particularly Ben Englert, Kyle Lubbehusen, Joel Weyer and Cole Henke, devoured the majority of 50-50 balls, most notably in the opening half.

Sullivan did not record a shot on goal all match. Celebrating after the match, the idea of such a defensive debarment was a bit mind-boggling, even to the Rangers.

“We just wanted to dominate tonight. And, I don’t even know. I’m just flabbergasted,” midfielder Aaron Schuler said. “We just knocked them out. There was no chance of them scoring.”

Though Sullivan’s high back line and trap-style defense caused Forest Park a few fits in the match’s first 30 minutes, the Golden Arrow defense struggled to clear a lively ball at the top of the 18-yard box with just under eight minutes to play in the first half. With Sullivan’s goalie off his line, Braunecker corralled the loose leather and served it to the back post, where Russell drove home a first-touch finish.

Schuler

While that tally allowed the Rangers to breathe easier, Austin Bromm’s score with 20:52 offered a full exhale. The defender scurried some 65 yards down the right flank with the ball at his feet, and capped the dash by floating a shot over the goalkeeper.

“I kept telling our coaches, ‘We got to get another one,’ because one kick of the ball and they’re right back in the game,” Sicard said. “(Bromm) comes flying up the right side of the field and I’m just telling him, ‘Go to goal, go to goal.’ And then he kicked it and I was like, ‘Oh, he wasted it. It’s going over the goal.’ And I see Braunecker on the far side jumping up and down. It was just a big relief to get that second one in there, and we definitely settled in and were able to put them away.”

Braunecker and Spenser Sermersheim added the finishing touches in the 64th and 80th minutes, respectively. Thirty seconds after the Sermersheim tally, the significance of the match, and the way it was won, founded a spirited postgame celebration that included the Ranger boys and girls teams.

The effort epitomized the potential of a group jelling at the ideal time, Russell said.

“Our capabilities are just … out there right now,” he said. “We can capture every moment we have and we’ll make the best of what we’ve got and it’ll be one amazing trip.”

Forest Park will face fourth-ranked Evansville Mater Dei, a 1-0 winner over Gibson Southern, in Saturday’s regional championship at 1 p.m. EDT.

Today will be a chance for recovery, particularly for Braunecker (ankle) and Henke (thigh), who both exited Thursday’s match in the second half and didn’t return.

The weekend tilt presents the Rangers with a far more familiar opponent, compared to the unknown Sullivan team. Mater Dei dismantled Forest Park 5-0 on Sept. 20, in what Sicard called “probably our worst game of the year.”

Yet a lot has changed in three weeks. Now, its’s about sustaining the drive.

“It’s just going to be a matter of if we want to rise to the challenge or not,” Sicard said.

As for confronting a top-tier Wildcat team that made the state finals last season, it’s a role the Rangers have come to embrace, Russell said.

“We’re hoping to become the underdog, just like we were in the sectional championship against (eighth-ranked) Washington Catholic,” he said. “We play harder. We fight harder. We’re just ready for the win.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




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