VERNON - The Badger Braves hosted their senior day before the start of their Division III sectional final against the Champion Golden Flashes but not because they scheduled it as such.
The Braves originally planned to have it during the final week of the regular season, but with that match rained out and no home match after that, Badger had no choice to celebrate its senior class Saturday.
This added to an already large crowd for the tournament match, and the Braves fed off it, beating the Golden Flashes, 4-1, to advance to a district semifinal next Tuesday.
"We usually don't get a lot of people here for a crowd," senior Colton Kellogg said. "Just having a lot of people come out, a lot of family, a lot of friends, that feeling that this could be your last game - not only your last game at home - gave us a little bit of a spark, a little bit of an edge."
That spark didn't shine through early, as the two teams, which scrimmaged before the start of the season to a 3-2 win in favor of Badger (14-1-1), went back and forth creating chances.
In the 19th minute, Badger's Braden Elsea dribbled toward the right sideline and away from net when a Champion defender clipped him in the 18-yard box, earning the Braves a penalty. Kellogg stepped up to convert it.
Badger coach Justin Deraway said that goal changed the flow of the match from an even one into one with Badger in control.
"Whenever you can get a goal off a penalty kick, it's going to help everyone on your team," Deraway said. "It helps everyone relax, and I felt like it really did bring our midfield together."
The Braves put to bed any thoughts of a young Champion (8-8-1) team coming back in the 40th minute, scoring right before the death.
Badger goalkeeper Jared Meikle picked up the ball with around 20 seconds left in the half before booting it downfield, catching Champion's defense pushing forward. After a bounce, Kellogg controlled the ball and passed to junior forward Joe Gorospe, whose shot squeaked underneath Champion goalkeeper Kyle Brown on its way to the back of the net with 3 seconds before the break.
Kellogg said he believed that goal broke Champion's spirit. It showed in the second half, as the Braves fired two more shots into the back of the net before the Golden Flashes scored a consolation goal through a John Prebonick penalty kick in the 71st minute.
"I was looking at my goalie and I knew we had 20 seconds left or so," Kellogg said. "I figured 'What the heck let's get one up,' and I heard my forward, Joe Gorospe, say something. I was like, 'You know what, let's flick it up to him and see what happens.' "
Despite the loss, Champion coach Tyler LeMon said he has a lot to take forward from this season, including a six-match unbeaten run toward the end of the season that confirmed a young group's progression.
"There's a lot of potential with the freshman group," LeMon said. "You look out on the field, we have six freshmen. That's unheard of at this level. They've improved over the year, so you can just hope that they bring that over as a sophomore next year."
The Braves, meanwhile, are now one step away from their goal this season - to play for a district championship. Badger will face either Maplewood, which it beat by a combined 11-1 scoreline over two matches, or John F. Kennedy, which the Braves beat 2-0 on Aug. 27.
Although Badger beat both teams, Deraway said the Braves need to realize that their opponent will come with their best effort on Tuesday and they must match it.
"We have to stay focused," Deraway said. "The kids know that each game is going to get harder and harder. Champion was a great team. I'm sure whichever team we'll get is going to give us their best game, their best shot, and we have to stay focused, stay within ourselves."