MIDDLETOWN TWP. — The reality dawned on just about everyone in attendance at Cairn University Tuesday afternoon.
With the Christian Academy’s usual two-headed attacking monster halved by injury and the Crusaders three goals in arears at halftime, the situation couldn’t have been any clearer, even if it went unstated: The only path back into the game, to the long sought-after Tri-State Christian Conference title, to an 18th straight win and an unbeaten season, would have to come via Evan Needs.
And did it ever.
Needs authored an individual performance for the ages, scoring four second-half goals — including the game-winner with 3:26 remaining — to almost single-handedly will the Crusaders to the title in a 4-3 thriller over Gloucester Christian.
In the process, the two-time All-Delco upped his career goal tally to 117, breaking the Delaware County record held by Delco Christian’s Kieran Keelan (115). He finishes his senior campaign with 43 markers.
If there’s a consideration for style points, Needs gets the advantage with a herculean flourish Tuesday, a display of sheer force of will for a player sporting a kit so stained with blood, mud and grass that it hardly looked its original white any longer.
With his 31-goal partner in crime Brit Haseltine restricted to the sidelines with a broken collarbone sustained in the regular-season finale with Gloucester, it was left to Needs to provide the attacking impetus to help the regular-season champs finish off the title sweep.
The imperative was put into more desperate terms thanks to a disastrous final eight minutes of the first half in which the Crusaders looked dreadfully out of sorts in conceding three times, goals by Rich Duggan bookending a tally from Joel Hughes.
Duggan’s second goal came with just 34 ticks showing on the clock, sending coach Brian Dennstaedt to a long and consolatory halftime speech. But even before a red card shifted the pendulum of momentum, there was a palpable belief that if given time and service, Needs could right the ship and drag his team back into contention.
“I told the guys, I told Evan, if we just play like we always play, guys will step up and fill the role,’ Dennstaedt said. “… ‘ You just keep playing. Evan, you’re going to do your thing; don’t force it, just let the game come and you’re going to find your opportunities, and when those opportunities come, you’ve got to bury them.’ And he did.’
What ensued was a performance compelling enough to get Needs an honorary place in the screen writers’ guild.
Needs opened TCA’s scoring six minutes into the second half on a penalty kick drawn when Gloucester Christian’s Steve Fowler, the poor soul designated by the Conquerors to man-mark Needs, clipped his heels at the edge of the 18-yard box. The argument that Fowler was the last man back, and thus could’ve seen red, fell on deaf ears, and Needs drilled an unstoppable spot kick high and to the left of Gloucester goalkeeper Brian Groot to peel the Crusaders up off the mat.
Fowler’s day ended seven minutes later, though, with his second yellow for a tackle that cleaned out Needs, giving the Crusaders the manpower advantage for the game’s final half hour.
It was the second of three yellow cards drawn by Needs, to go along with a couple of dangerous free kicks in the first half where Needs also hit the deck.
“I knew all I had to do was keep my head together and let the refs take care of it,’ Needs said. “When (Fowler) finally took my down the first time, I wasn’t sure if they were going to give me the PK or not, but as soon as they did they gave him the yellow.’
Needs cashed in on the manpower edge almost immediately, the momentum snowballing with each passing minute and each charge up the field. He tied the career mark in the 55th minute, cutting back from the right channel to evade a defender and blasting a left-footed shot into the net.
After stinging the crossbar in the 57th minute with a side-footed drive from near the penalty spot, he assumed ownership of the Delco career record all by his lonesome in the 70th. Back from a three-minute rest on the sideline to change his blood-stained No. 14 jersey, Needs received a feed from Skaer near the center of the box and tucked his shot home, drawing his team back to level terms.
“He’s one heck of a player,’ Gloucester Christian defender Bill Scanlon said. “He’s the best player in the league by far. He’s extremely fast and a very hard guy to guard. … He’s so hard to shut down. There’s really nothing you can do to shut him down completely, but just limit him as much as you can. That’s really the goal.’
And then there was the championship clincher, another hopeful ball from Nahom Kenna’s right wing placed into space down the left channel for Needs to get behind the defense. He ran onto the ball and took a touch to provide the space to brandish once more his positively lethal finishing touch.
“This was single-handedly the best performance I’ve ever seen from a soccer player,’ Dennstaedt said. “I’ve been around the game for a while and I’ve been in a lot of soccer games, I’ve watched a lot of soccer games. And I just have never seen somebody just basically take over a half and say I’m not going to lose this game.’
Given the choice between the milestones achieved Tuesday, Needs couldn’t distinguish which was dearest. Then again, he spent a lot of time on the field making sure he wouldn’t have to.
“The record is something that can last forever, but the championship is something inside that will last forever, knowing my senior year we were able to pull it together,’ Needs said. “From the start of my freshman year, that was the goal every year, to win the championship. And to pull that off, last game of my career, that’s the bottom line. That’s the sweetest memory I’ll have.’