If Lambert’s boys soccer team advances deep enough in the state playoffs, players will eventually turn their thoughts to repeating as state champions.
For now, the Longhorns just want to extend their season long enough to get head coach Chris Wilson back on the sideline. Lambert took a big step toward that goal Wednesday night, and it may have gotten some help from South Gwinnett along the way.
Cooper Coughlin scored two goals in the first half, Mitch Fandos added another 90 seconds before halftime, and the No. 4-ranked Longhorns held on to beat No. 10 Duluth 3-1 in the opening round of the Class 6A state playoffs at The Horn.
The Longhorns move on to host a second round matchup with South Gwinnett, which stunned previously unbeaten No. 1 Lassister — the No. 3 team in the nation — with a 2-1 upset victory in Marietta.
If Lambert defeats South Gwinnett next week it will allow Wilson, who is serving a two-game suspension after receiving a red card in the regular season finale, to come back to the sideline for the remainder of the playoffs.
"They’re playing for their coach, I think, at this point," Lambert assistant coach Scott Luthart said. "They want to get him back on the field and make sure his season continues, and they’re one step away from doing that.
"Knowing he couldn’t be here, he really stressed emphasis on execution of his game plan and keeping a tight defensive unit."
Said Coughlin: "He really prepared us, this whole week we’ve been training hard. We just wanted to win this for him and the team, and I just feel like we were prepared and mentally ready for it."
The junior also appeared mentally prepared for a strong individual performance.
Coughlin connected on a shot from 13 yards out in the 15th minute to give the No. 2 seed Longhorns (15-3) a 1-0 lead over No. 3 seed Duluth (10-5-1). He struck again in the 23rd minute with a blistering shot from more than 30 yards out that seemed to catch the Wildcats — and his own coach — off guard.
"The second strike was absolute purity," Luthart said. "We’re all going to be waiting up late tonight to see the video loaded online because I only caught part of [the shot].
"He’s so gifted, he’s so creative and he has great vision. ... He has an absolutely impeccable shot when he strokes it right."
Mitch Fandos later gave Lambert a commanding 3-0 lead before halftime when he collected a free kick in the box and drilled it past the goalkeeper with 1:30 remaining in the first half.
About the only thing that did not go right for the Longhorns in the first half was a leg injury to senior defender Ryan Elswick in the 17th minute. Fellow senior Trexler Bennett slid into his spot for the remainder of the game.
Luthart said initial tests did not reveal any structural damage to Elswick’s leg, and the team hopes it is only a bruise.
"This is the healthiest we’ve been probably in a month and a half, so to see him go down early [was tough]," Luthart said.
"It was a natural fix because ... Trexler played most of the last three years at that spot, so we knew we weren’t going to suffer there. ... It was going to affect us more from the offensive standpoint than the defensive."
The game was physical from start to finish and included several stoppages in play due to minor injuries.
Luthart, who coached the Grayson boys team prior to becoming a coach at Lambert, came into the game knowing what to expect from the Wildcats.
"We’ve had a lot of knock-down, drag-outs with Duluth in the past during our Grayson days. [They are] always physical, but they [also] have some dangerous players on the attack."
Duluth’s only goal came less than five minutes into the second half when Nikolai Iotov scored on a breakaway. Iotov found another breakaway opportunity in the 64th minute, but Longhorns goalkeeper Miles Maynard denied him a second goal.
Lambert has won its last four games after losing three of four during a stretch late in the season.
The Longhorns held a No. 1 seed in the playoffs in 2011 and 2012 and have not played a postseason game on the road since 2010. Thanks to South Gwinnett’s upset against Lassiter, Lambert is guaranteed at least one more playoff game at The Horn.
"I’m really happy for us," Coughlin said. "I think we can go far now that we have momentum and are home [again]."
Lambert will host South Gwinnett on Wednesday.