DENHAM SPRINGS — Denham Springs coach Chris Thorne knew that none of his current players were part of the program when Grace King knocked the Yellow Jackets out of the playoffs in 2016.
So during the warm-up period Thursday night at Yellow Jacket Stadium, he had the scoreboard reflect a 3-1 advantage for the returning Fighting Irish, a stark reminder of the losing margin four years ago.
This time No. 2 Denham Springs dispatched the Irish 4-0 to advance in the Division I quarterfinals.
“I just felt like they just needed to be reminded of what can happen if you don’t take your opponent seriously and you don’t take care of business,” Thorne said.
The task at hand would not be so easy. The No. 18 Irish (16-4) came into the match riding a nine-game winning streak and yielded just four goals to their opponents in that span. The streak also included a 1-0 win over No. 15 Slidell in the opening round last week.
With DHS earning a first-round bye, Thorne figured it might take some time for the Yellow Jackets to get into a productive rhythm.
The hosts brought their “greatest show on turf” style of play to the match and spent most of the first half keeping the Irish reeling on their heels. Denham pressed Grace King’s defense early on, but the Irish held firm and neutralized the Yellow Jacket attack.
Denham (19-7-1) broke through in the 60th minute by taking advantage of a hands call inside the box. On the penalty kick, senior Will Chevalier applied pace to a low shot that found the back of the net.
That first goal gave the Yellow Jackets a bit of breathing room, but the second goal left the visitors visibly frustrated and deflated.
In the 70th minute, junior center-midfielder Brennan Amato accepted a through-ball from Blaze Restivo and suddenly found himself one-on-one in close range with the Grace King keeper. Amato made a quick move to his left to throw the keeper off balance and punched it into the back of the net from close range.
It was a bit of redemption for Amato, as the junior bore the brunt of Grace King’s aggressive play. He was struck in his lower right leg three times in the first half but fought through the pain and stayed in the fight. He was struck in the same leg twice more early in the second half and for the first time drew a yellow card.
Any thoughts of exiting the game were promptly replaced by thoughts of helping claim a win for his senior teammates.
“They were hitting me in the legs, but I just kept playing through,” he said. “I didn’t want to come out, didn’t want to stop. I wanted to play for the seniors and come up with a goal or an assist, anything I could do to give our seniors a win.”
Thorne described Amato as the “engine” that makes the Yellow Jackets go.
“He’s probably the hardest working kid I’ve ever coached,” Thorne said. “He plays so hard and puts himself in those challenging situations. We leave it up to them to come out as far as injuries are concerned, but we were watching him. He’s just a tough son-of-a-gun. I couldn’t be more proud of him. He showed that hard work pays off in the end.”
Chevalier scored again from inside 10 yards less than a minute later, and Jon Baio scored on a long clean crossing shot in stoppage time.
Grace King coach Mesa Muminovic said Denham Springs was relentless and pushed the Irish to exhaustion.
“We played a good game until they scored, and we got a little tired because they just kept coming,” he said. “They are an amazing team, the best we’ve played this year. But I’m proud of the way our team played, too. We did the best we could.”