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Panthers teams hope to take next step

By CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

Eastbrook boys’ and girls’ soccer has made impressive strides since their inceptions in 2012 and Saturday could see both teams ascend to a higher level.

Both teams are competing in the IHSAA regionals with legitimate chances of winning their first championships. It could be argued the boys are favored at the Class 2A Oak Hill Regional as the only ranked team (12th), although defending champ Fort Wayne Concordia is back and defeated the Panthers in the final last year on penalty kicks after scoreless regulation and overtime periods.

Eastbrook (13-1) opens against Leo (10-5-1) at noon following the opener between Concordia (14-4-1) and Western (12-4-1) at 10 a.m. The winners vie for the title at 7 p.m.

“The guys know they can play with a team like that, and we’re a year older and (Concordia) is a year older,” Eastbrook coach Adam Hallis said. “You go in having seen an opponent and see what it takes to get to the regional finals and hopefully the next level, and it gives you some confidence knowing you can play with a team like that.”

The girls enter regional play at Northwestern with the best record at 16-1 and ranked 12th in Class A by the coaches. Eastbrook plays Fort Wayne Canterbury (3-13) in the noon semifinal.

Lafayette Central Catholic (15-4) is ranked third in girls’ Class A and faces No. 10 University (13-3-2) of Carmel at 10 a.m. semifinal. The championship is set for 7 p.m.

“I know Canterbury traditionally has a very good program, and they have an incredibly tough schedule,” Eastbrook first-year coach Jamie Hallis said. “I think it gives us hope that, hey, maybe we can win our first game at regionals, which I don’t know if Eastbrook’s ever felt like that going into regionals.

“I think that’s exciting, but we’re also trying to approach it with a lot of caution and nothing’s given to us, and we have to earn a win,” she added. “I think we’ll come out firing on all cylinders and try to take it from the beginning.”

Eastbrook’s boys won their first sectional last year and then won a regional semifinal match against Bellmont before losing the final. The girls have advanced out of sectional five times in the seven years Eastbrook has fielded a team but have yet to win a regional match.

Canterbury knocked Eastbrook out of the tournament twice in 2013 and ‘15 and in the latter year won the first of back-to-back state Class A championships. Yet, the current Canterbury team has scored eight goals this season while Eastbrook standout Sarah Foulk has 48 by herself.

Foulk set the school and Grant County all-time goal scoring record Saturday in the Panthers’ 10-0 sectional final victory over Eastern. The Panthers have scored 78 goals this season and shut out opponents 11 times, allowing six total goals.

“They are still fairly young,” Jamie Hallis said of her team. “The thing I worry more about is we need to continue seeing high levels of soccer in competition ... and I don’t know if we see it. We look really good and at times we look especially good. But it’s very hard to compare girls’ soccer, and it’s hard to know what the highest level of competition is, and I don’t know if we have that strength of schedule.”

While Eastbrook’s boys haven’t played Leo, the two teams are comparable in their balanced offense and reliance on defense. Leo’s top scorer Reid Sproat has scored 14 goals and no other player has more than three, while the defense has six shutouts including two in the sectional over Norwell (2-0) and Heritage (5-0).

Leo also had a 2-1 victory over Bellmont, the only team to defeat Eastbrook, in the sectional semifinals.

“(Sproat’s) a pretty good player,” Adam Hallis said. “We play a lot of guys at midfield so hopefully we can work together and limit the number of times he has his feet on the ball and be dangerous. But a player like that is going to get his chances and we got to limit those.”

Adam Hallis said the regional field appears balanced but might give Concordia an edge based on its prior tournament experience.

“Concordia lost some players like we did, but they return a lot of (last year’s) team,” he said. “They have a really tough schedule, and they have played well. They are playing well at the right time, but it’s soccer and everybody has a chance if you get the right gameplan.”

Jamie Hallis said several factors could work against her team, including their overall youth and playing the second semifinal match that leads to shorter rest for the final.

“There’s part of me that thinks we have a shot,” Jamie Hallis said. “I think the second game will be really tough, and we’re looking at a couple different ways to play it depending on what we see in that first game.

“But I think it’s really exciting go into (regional) with a feeling of hope that we could get through this,” she added.