OAKWOOD -- Jed Lacey says that defense has been the backbone of the Dawson County boys soccer team all season.
On Tuesday night, the Tigers defense put Dawson right back at the top of the Region 7-AAA title race.
After dominating much of the first half, the Tigers made a 1-0 lead hold up against a second-half West Hall barrage, denying the Spartans a chance to clinch the 7-AAA crown with the victory in Oakwood.
The win gave Dawson County the inside track to the 7-AAA title, yielding the head-to-head tiebreaker over West Hall -- each team now sporting one region loss -- with two region contests to go.
"Our defense has played well all season, and that was a statement game tonight because that (West Hall) was a great team right there," Lacey said. "We knew it was two great teams going head-to-head, and we stepped up."
In the first half it was Dawson's attack doing the stepping -- particularly Brandon Lund.
The junior striker pounced on a lobbed pass from Ben Leaver just 2:31 into the contest to give the visitors a 1-0 advantage and made life difficult for the Spartans defense throughout, chasing every ball and beating numerous players to carve out paths to goal.
"Usually when you score early like that it lifts your team up and makes everyone play better," Lund said. "It really helped up there early."
Dawson County's David Velasquez and Sal Mendoza certainly looked up for the challenge, winning early control of midfield and playing Lund through on the Spartans defense.
"Lund is a freak," Lacey said, "an absolute freak. And that early goal really put more pressure on them and allowed us to relax a little."
Relax is a relative term, however, and the hard-working Tigers (12-3, 4-1 Region 7-AAA) were relieved that a first half penalty kick miss proved harmless. Cole Edwards created the penalty with 34 minutes left in the first half, running on to another chipped pass before receiving a bone-crunching tackle. Yet Edwards couldn't beat Cesar Villa, who dove to his left to deny Edwards' shot.
"You can't miss PKs; that will come back to bite you," Lacey said. "But their keeper made an excellent save."
The penalty reprieve looked to fire up the Spartans (9-5-2, 5-1), who began fighting their way back into the contest just before the half. But West Hall could not find a way past a resolute Tigers back line, as Josh Sage, Austin Stewart, Leaver, and Timothy Moody combined to nag the Spartans into mostly long-distance shots.
And when a ball did get through Brooks Fulford proved an impregnable final line, as the keeper smothered a number of West Hall scoring opportunities. Fulford's most impressive save came with five minutes remaining, as the senior reacted quickly to palm away 12-yard volley from Simon Cobian.
West Hall's Omar Castillo also came close to breaking through for West Hall but watched in agony as his angled shot rolled across an open goal with nine minutes remaining -- part of a second half that saw the ball pinned in the Dawson County half -- much as the first half had seen the Spartans under consistent pressure.
"The wind on that end of the field killed us" Lund said. "And they were a great passing team and they played hard. This was a huge win for us."
Dawson County will play host to Banks County on Friday, knowing that two more wins -- including a huge game at East Hall on April 22 -- will clinch a championship.
West Hall, meanwhile, will travel to face its last region foe in North Hall on Friday. A Tigers loss and a Spartans win would still net a 7-AAA championship for West Hall.