Ian Bennett and Tenzin Rampa (Madison West/UW-Milwaukee) got the Milwaukee Serbians Reserves off to a blazing start in Sunday afternoon's inaugural Wisconsin Soccer Leagues Reserve Division final, combining for three goals in the opening half hour.
But the Croatian Eagles Reserves came all the way back, with a goal by recent Waukesha Catholic Memorial graduate Joel Balicki in the 70th minute capping a 4-3 victory and an emotional championship at Croatian Park in Franklin.
The win came on the one-year anniversary of the death of 25-year-old Craig Carlson, a former Grafton High School and Carroll University player who was a regular with the Croatians Reserves.
"We have a lot of guys who played with Craig," said Alex Toth, who manages both the Croatians' Major and Reserve teams. "After we got a couple of those goals, guys started believing, 'All right, let's win this for Craig.' That was a good feeling."
Bennett scored twice and Rampa, his teammate on the Major Indoor Soccer League's Milwaukee Wave, had the other as the Serbians Reserves (11-5-1) raced out to a 3-0 lead.
"Both of them have a lot of pace and are good technically, so it put a lot of pressure on our backline," said Toth, whose team beat their fellow finalists 5-1 in a regular-season match on June 2. "Just like with the Majors, we always use our outside backs to get into the attack, so that also caused some issues."
To deal with Bennett and Rampa, Toth had his fullbacks stay home the rest of the match and deployed a second holding midfielder as a screen in front of the backline. And the Croatians got a lifeline just before halftime when Fedja Korjenic (UW-Parkside/UW-Oshkosh) headed in a corner kick to make it 3-1.
"Down 3-0 at halftime, I'm looking at probably not coming back. But 3-1, that's a little bit better," Toth said. "After we figured out how to handle those guys up top, getting that goal kind of changed the momentum."
Bryce Boyd (Milwaukee Marquette/UW-Milwaukee) pulled the home team within 3-2 just 5 minutes into the second half, following his own shot after it was saved and putting in the rebound. Boyd is the starting goalkeeper for the Croatians Majors but plays forward with the Reserves – Toth said Boyd likely was the team's leading scorer this season.
About 7 minutes later, Taylor Layton (Mequon Homestead) played a through ball that Spencer Bursten (Grafton/UW-Parkside) finished with a first-time shot to level the score. Balicki, who had been playing with the club's Under-18 boys team, put the Croatians (14-2-1) ahead with a left-footed strike from the top of the box into the upper 90.
"He's a really good player, but really wasn't noticed by Division I schools," Toth said. "He's going to go to Carroll and I think he'll try to play there. I think he should be a starter. ... He's really developed as a player."
The Eagles had to see out the final 20 minutes before they could celebrate the title, and they needed some late heroics from keeper Juan Antonio Rodriguez (Milwaukee Tech) in the 86th. After a misplayed ball in the box, Rampa – a former Croatians Majors player – was in alone on goal but Rodriguez stopped the initial shot and a follow up to preserve the slim lead.