TEMPLE — Emerging from the visitors bench already wearing his windbreaker pants and his tattered Vans deck shoes, Mohamed Balde lifted his long arms to the sky, extending his index fingers, as teammates celebrated around him.
For the first time in 12 years, the Ellison Eagles soccer team was in the playoffs.
“I came out with five minutes left in the game and I thought I’d get dressed, get comfortable and celebrate at the end of the game before we all went out,” said Balde, a junior midfielder.
Three separate players contributed a goal and an assist in the first half as the Eagles secured their first postseason berth since 2001 with a 3-0 shutout of host Temple on Friday at Woodson Field.
The last time Ellison made the playoffs, current Killeen head soccer coach Sylvester Jallah was the star player and Balde, who scored the third goal with 15 minutes left in the first half, was a 6-year-old, still adjusting to his first year in America after growing up in Africa’s Ivory Coast.
“I don’t know if you can put it into words, I don’t if it’s really sunk in,” Eagles head coach Niles Dunnells said. “But you can see the smiles on everybody’s faces, it’s huge — what’s the old cliché about the monkey on the back? — just to have that relief.”
The Eagles (14-6-1, 8-4 8-5A) controlled from the opening kick, spending much of their time — especially in the first half — on the Temple side of the field.
Keeping the pressure on the Wildcats, Ellison first found the back of the net 11 minutes into the game when senior Ryan Stuckey received a long pass from junior Nathan Diederich for a breakaway opportunity down the center of the field and struck the ball to the left of Temple goalie Jose Juarez to go ahead 1-0 with 29:36 left in the half.
Sixteen seconds later, the Eagles were celebrating again as Balde played the ball left-to-right from midfield to Diederich, who kicked it back across his body with his right foot and sent it sailing into the left corner of the Temple goal.
“This was all Stuckey again, they didn’t see him coming from the right side and he hit the ball to me in the midfield and I put a through ball and Nate took a guy on and banged the ball right into the net,” Balde said. “It was a really good goal.”
In all, the Eagles outshot Temple 18-9 as and senior goalie Matthew Charlton recorded eight saves. Despite the three goals, Juarez added seven saves himself.
Ellison had several more opportunities around the net, even a clean shot from Jonathon Keene that bounced off the right post, before Balde got his chance.
Coming off a Temple attack, Stuckey countered with a breakaway opportunity with only a Wildcats defender and Juarez between him and his second goal of the night. Running nearly 20 yards ahead of his closest teammate, Stuckey slowed down and twice dribbled the ball around the top of the goalie box, waiting for Balde to catch up to the play.
Once there, Stuckey made a simple pass to Balde on the right corner of the box and the left-footed Balde punched it in with his right foot across his body and past a diving Juarez into the back of the net. The goal put Ellison ahead 3-0 with 15 minutes still to play in the first half.
“It was an easy pass, and I’m mainly left-footed so I used my opposite foot to try something new,” Balde said.