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East celebration

Madison East players celebrate clinching the Big Eight Conference championship after defeating Middleton on Thursday night at Breese Stevens Field. 

Madison East could have clinched the Big Eight Conference boys soccer title Tuesday night against Madison La Follette, but the Lancers rallied from two goals down to earn a draw and force their rivals into a winner-take-all conference finale against Middleton.

The Purgolders had waited 26 years to celebrate a Big Eight championship, so what was two more days?

Senior midfielder Jonas Luskey-Sanders pulled East level early in the second half, and sophomore striker Josh Cervantes scored the go-ahead goal and set up an insurance goal as the Purgolders came back to beat Middleton 3-2 at Breese Stevens Field and win their first conference title since 1991.

“It means everything,” senior center back and co-captain Sam Bauman said after East knocked off the Cardinals on the final night of the conference season to deny them the Big Eight title for the second consecutive year. “It’s an amazing feeling.”

Middleton (12-3-4 overall, 6-1-2 Big Eight) — ranked fourth in this week’s Wisconsin Soccer Coaches Association Division 1 state poll — grabbed the early lead through senior standout Derek Waleffe, who tracked down and settled a bouncing ball and fired past Purgolders goalkeeper Brett Richardson for his 30th goal of the season just 6 minutes into the match.

But while the Cardinals had more of the ball and the better of the play, it was still 1-0 at the break — and East’s best chances of the opening 45 minutes came through Luskey-Sanders in the final minutes of the half.

Sixth-ranked East (12-3-1, 8-0-1) carried that momentum through halftime, and nearly pulled level in the opening minute of the second half. A nifty combination between Cervantes and senior forward Jeffrey Cruz ended up with Luskey-Sanders played in on the left side, but his near-post shot was wide.

The fourth time was the charm, though. Senior midfielder and co-captain Ryan Roelke spotted Luskey-Sanders free at the top of the box, and he turned and shot, beating goalkeeper Ben Scher on a shot that pinged in off the right post.

“We worked so hard for this,” said Luskey-Sanders, who spent some time on the bench talking to East coaches David Harris and Kyle Koenig after receiving a yellow card for dissent in the 16th minute. “I knew we had the pockets out wide, we just needed to keep attacking, and it worked — it set us in motion.”

Cervantes, who had the goal in the Purgolders’ 1-0 win over Middleton 364 days earlier, put East in front in the 60th. He made a diagonal run through the box to the right side, ran on to a through ball from Erick Manzo and slotted a shot past the onrushing Scher to the far post.

“He’s special,” Harris said of Cervantes, “probably the best sophomore in the league.”

Twenty minutes later, Cervantes turned provider, bursting down the left flank on a counter attack, drawing two defenders to him and squaring the ball to a wide-open Cruz, who took his time and coolly finished to all but seal East’s first outright Big Eight championship — back in 1991, the Purgolders shared the crown with Madison Memorial and Madison West. This season marked just the fourth time in the league’s 29-year history that Memorial, West or Middleton didn’t win or share the title.

Junior midfielder Bryce Schuster scored a late goal off a rebound to make it a one-goal game — all three of the Cardinals’ losses this season have been by the slimmest of margins — but it was just consolation for Middleton, which came in riding a six-game winning streak.

“We felt like we could finish it out,” said Cardinals coach Ben Kollasch, whose program was looking for its first conference championship since 2012. “I think we made a few small errors (in the second half) and East picked right up on them and they put it away, put the pressure on us.

“We’d love to see them again, because I think there were a lot of plays that easily could have gone either direction and a lot of them ended up going their direction. Whether that’s luck or us being a touch slow, I don’t know, but the next time we’re going to be a touch quicker and a touch better. We lost one shot at a conference championship, but we have some bigger things in our sights right now.”

Middleton 1 1 — 2

Madison East 0 3 — 3

First half: M — Waleffe, 6:00.

Second half: ME — Luskey-Sanders (Roelke), 48:00; Cervantes (Manzo), 60:00; Cruz (Cervantes), 80:00. M — Schuster, 88:00.

Saves: M (Scher) 3; ME (Richardson) 6.

Shots: M 9, ME 15. Fouls: M 11, ME 8. Corner kicks: M 1, ME 8. Offsides: M 4, ME 1. Yellow cards: M — Lund (40th), Pauly (88th); ME — Luskey-Sanders (16th), S. Bauman (33rd).