Niles’ early scores lead Red Dragons past West Branch

NILES – Every coach dreams of the perfect start to a game or even a half, but teams rarely execute it.

Niles accomplished that feat not only once but twice during the Red Dragons’ 3-1 win over West Branch at Eastwood Mall Field at Bo Rein Stadium on Thursday in a Division II sectional final.

In the first half, the Red Dragons (12-4-1) opened the goal count 30 seconds after the opening whistle and then scored 3 minutes into the second half to take an insurmountable 3-1 lead over the Warriors (11-6-1).

“That’s what we set out to do every single game, every single half – you have to set the tone,” Niles coach Jennifer Mease said. “If the other team scores first, it’s very hard to bring your team up from that. If they score first, we have to battle back. If we score first and we start making mistakes, you get a little bit more cushion.”

On both goals, it was Delainey Cowell who found the back of the net, receiving service from Gabby Infante in the first half to give the Red Dragons its original lead. In the second half, Hannah Ward got loose on the right wing before centering the ball to Cowell, who shot into a wide-open net after West Branch goalkeeper Lauren Martig tried to block the cross.

“It felt really good and I’m glad to be moving on in the playoffs,” Cowell said. “It felt good, honestly, to get an early goal. It helped us out to keep going on.”

For Mease, she was happy for the junior, who’s known more for creating opportunities for others rather than scoring. Cowell has five goals after Thursday’s win.

“It’s wonderful to see Delainey score because Delainey has been our table-setter all year long,” Mease said. “She wins the balls and then she has amazing field vision to set up the plays. For her to get a couple of goals and finish her opportunities, it’s what we’ve wanted for her all year, so this is perfect for her to start the tournament at.”

Outside of Cowell’s goal in the 43rd minute, Niles didn’t see too much of the ball as West Branch pushed forward to attempt to erase that two-goal deficit.

The Warriors spent the majority of the second half on Niles’ side of the field, but in spite of the large disparity in possession, the Warriors only managed four shots on net, thanks in large part to the Niles defense keeping shape and protecting goalkeeper Paige Freel.

“I’ve had a strong defense all year, so we have nothing but the upmost confidence in them,” Mease said. “They give 120 percent every game. I believe in them and I wasn’t too worried about it. I would have liked a better effort on the offensive end and more push, but my defense held strong, and they have all year.”

West Branch coach Nathan Heddleston said although the team didn’t manage to score in the second half, he thought it was a vast improvement over the team’s performance during the first 40 minutes. A few defensive lapses ended up costing his team, he said.

“In the first half, we played off them a little too much and sort of played into their gameplan and putting the ball in and letting their three forwards run onto it,” Heddleston said. “I was happy that we were able to possess so much (in the second half). Obviously, I would have liked us to get the shot volume we wanted in – accuracy, too.”

With the win, Niles earned the right to play the second-seeded Lakeview Bulldogs (13-3-1) on Monday in a district semifinal. Mease said for the Red Dragons to be successful, they need their usual defensive effort and to take advantage of the few opportunities they get on offense – the same recipe for success against West Branch.

“Continue our defense and shut down their attack,” Mease said. “Lakeview has a wonderful attack, and then the same thing we did here – even if you don’t get many opportunities, capitalize on the opportunities you have. The most I ask for the girls is they give 120 percent, and we should come out with a win, maybe.”