PARIS — Edward Little has had leads in close games, and on Thursday night the Red Eddies were finally able to hold one. 

With the game tied in the second half, Austin Brown jumped into the air and re-directed a free kick into the back of the net and gave Edward Little a one-goal lead with 27 minutes left. No one else scored, and EL secured a crucial 2-1 victory over Oxford Hills with both teams fighting for a playoff spot. 

“It feels good to hold onto one,” Red Eddies coach Tim Maines said. “We’ve had leads this year. We led Camden Hills with 15 minutes left, we were up early against Brunswick. We’ve been up some games and we’ve let teams crawl back into them, so it was good for us when that first one went in, they answered, and it was good for us to kind of keep our composure.”

A little more than five minutes into the game, Edward Little’s Chase Martin delivered a gorgeous through ball to a streaking Brown down the middle of the field, setting up a one-on-one opportunity against Oxford Hills (2-7-2) goalkeeper Sam Morton. Brown won that matchup, slipping the ball low and out of reach of Morton for the first goal of the game. 

Edward Little (5-6) dominated possession early, but all it took was a moment of ball movement in the Eddies’ half for the Vikings to give them life — life they desperately needed after entering Thursday’s contest only a handful of Heal points out of the A North playoff picture. 

After a shot went off the crossbar and straight down, the ball bounced to the right just in front of the goal line and was headed in by Keegan Watson, who seemed to be everywhere for Oxford Hills. 

Watson’s goal might have disheartened the Eddies earlier in the season, but not Thursday. 

“It feels great,” Brown said. “We’ve lost a couple close ones where we’ve had a lead that got away from us, but we were able to hang on tonight.”

Edward Little kept up the pressure in Oxford Hills’ side of the field, forcing Morton to make four of his seven saves in the first half. Morton had to make two big saves in the final five minutes of the first half to maintain the tie, the most impressive coming in the final 10 seconds when Morton dove to his right to stop a close-range shot.

Oxford Hills’ offense was on a mission in the second half. In the first minute after the break, the Vikings were in EL’s face in the final third and nearly earned their second goal. 

“We just told them that we need them to play with intensity because this is an important game for us to make the playoffs,” Oxford Hills coach Matt Dieterich said. “In the last 20 minutes we played with intensity and effort again, but we couldn’t find the net.”

The second half was a drastic shift in play from the first half, as both teams had chances in the opening 10 minutes and counter-attacks were plentiful. 

EL finally earned some much-earned breathing room when Jack Thompson ripped a free kick from about 35 yards out into the middle of the Oxford Hills penalty box. Brown jumped and turned his foot to flick the ball into the net for the Eddies’ second goal of the game. 

“I just kind of made contact and re-directed it somehow and put it in the net,” Brown said. “It just worked out. It feels nice. Earlier in the year, I struggled to score, and I think that’s a big problem with us, that we don’t score a ton of goals, so every goal for us is huge. Being able to score twice and contribute is nice.”

Mains said he knew that Brown was more than capable of playing a game such as Thursday’s.

“He hasn’t played soccer since middle school, but his athleticism and talent stand on their own,” Mains said. “He’s been huge for us. He’s our leading goal scorer this year, and he’s been a leader on and off the field as well.”

With the lead in hand for EL, Oxford Hills needed to turn up the offensive pressure. 

In the final 20 minutes, Oxford Hills put four shots on target, with many more going wide or being blocked. Sampson was punching balls out left and right, and the key cog in the Eddies’ defense, Jamaine Luizzo, was in the right place at the right time, every time.

“He’s been doing that all year long — and last year, too, he’s not new back there,” Mains said of Luizzo. “He does save us often, not only himself being where he needs to be, but organizing us back there, he does a great job with it.”

The Red Eddies’ backline has been stout this season, holding most opponents to low scores. More often, it has been the offense that has struggled.

“If you look back at the scores, aside from the first Brunswick game, teams have been scoring two goals, tops, against us,” Brown said. “(The defense) has been locked down to keep us in it, and we try to score goals and keep us in front.”

The victory is critical to Edward Little’s chances of reaching the Class A North playoffs. The Eddies (5-6) are in eighth place after Thursday’s win, and the top-nine qualify for the playoffs.

Oxford Hills (2-7-2), meanwhile, is in 12th place, nine Heal points behind ninth-place Cony for the region’s final postseason berth.

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