By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
CHINA SPRING – About a month ago, the Salado boys soccer team wasn't certain if it even had a future to look forward to.
Friday night, the upstart Eagles assured themselves their inaugural season wouldn't end any time soon with three goals in a 7-minute flurry late in their 4A bi-district playoff game for a 3-1 victory over host China Spring.
"It's like being on a rocket ship going to space, it's awesome," Salado's Chase Crenwelge said.
"It's unrealistic," said Eagles teammate Daniel Lemus, who scored twice and assisted on the third. "I can't believe it. It's amazing."
Salado will advance to take on District 35 champion Jacksonville at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Waxahachie.
When it was announced Salado would move back down to 2A during the UIL's biennial realignment last month, there was serious concern among the Eagles faithful that the first-year varsity program would be relegated to a club team.
But not long after realignment was announced, Salado (14-10) was granted a waiver by the University Interscholastic League to remain in Class 4A, at least with regards to soccer.
"It was kind of tough, but at the same time, I told the kids, 'Hey, we've got this year, and this year only,' and that's what we thought at the time," Salado coach Michael Goos said. "And once we found out we could continue to play, they kind of got that scare and it woke them up a little bit and made them want more than maybe what they originally would have."
The emotional rollercoaster of the last month only elevated the emotional outburst following the program's first-ever playoff victory.
"It's definitely black and white," Crenwelge said. "You go from your darkest hour to your happiest hour."
For nearly the first 60 minutes Friday, there wasn't much to be happy with as the upstart Eagles struggled against China Springs' athleticism, often getting beaten downfield by a must faster Cougars squad.
"We knew they'd be faster than us … and we knew we didn't want to play their game, and that's what I think we did in the beginning," Goos said.
That all changed with 22 minutes left.
Attacking from the right side, Salado's Dennie Barker sent a sharp cross into the goalie box, skirting right past Crenwelge and finding Lemus five feet in front of the goal.
Resetting, Lemus kicked the ball backside just inside the left post and past China Spring goalie Blake Crum to break a scoreless tie.
"It came in and it was a little too far in front of me, and I didn't think I'd be able to get to it, and Daniel just came in and took it," Crenwelge said.
"I saw the open space and I just knew something was going to happen," Lemus interjected.
From there, the proverbial floodgates opened for Salado as the Eagles duo hooked up again 4½ minutes later when Crum bit on a Lemus fake before he made a short pass to an oncoming Crenwelge for a open-net score.
"I just saw (Crenwelge) running out of nowhere, just coming in flying, so I just tried to get it away from the two defenders that were on me and passed it," said Lemus, who added his second goal of the game with 15 minutes left to clinch the win.
China Spring's Phillip Gai, who had three previous attempts sail inches wide of the Salado net, put in the Cougars' lone goal with 1:21 left in the game.