Coming into Thursday’s Flyway Conference match against Winnebago Lutheran, the Wayland prep boys soccer team knew the game was important.

Both teams were in the conference’s penthouse, but Wayland was in second place with a 5-0-1 record to WLA’s 6-0 record.

So, in order to be in contention for a conference title, the Big Red knew they had to beat the Vikings, ranked ninth in Division 4 according to the Wisconsin Soccer Coaches Association.

While Wayland had multiple opportunities to take the lead, they were able to at least avoid defeat by fighting back from a one-goal deficit to force a 1-1 draw.

Even though the Big Red played well against a highly ranked opponent, head coach Asim Aziz couldn’t look at it as a moral victory.

“I’m proud of the boys, I think they gave it everything,” he said. “I will applaud them. I respect them. I love them, but as a team, as a coach, the mentality that a draw can be a win is something that is foreign to me.”

His Big Red fought to the very end. Even after getting behind in the 55th-minute, Wayland clawed its way back and never game up.

The Vikings’ goal at that point happened due to a miscalculation on the part of Wayland goalkeeper Henry Balk, who came up to grab a free kick from near midfield by WLA’s Mason Kobilic but had the ball sail over his head to give WLA the lead.

Before that point, Aziz had Kerem Kocer back on defense because Kocer “wanted to make sure our defense was shored up” and didn’t want to move him up the field to attack until Wayland had a goal. But once his team trailed at the 55-minute mark, Aziz had to make the switch.

“I guess it’s true for any sport before it’s even begun,” Aziz said. “Once (they) got a goal that was my cue.”

The goal sparked the change and 10 minutes later Kocer found Graeme Reid open in front of WLA’s net, passed to him, and Reid made a move past a couple defenders and rocketed past WLA keeper Kalan Narance to tie it at 1-1.

Wayland had chances to tie the game before that goal, too. A header went over the net with 27:33 left and Reid had a break-away attempt shut down when Narance swept the ball from beneath his legs with 26:45 left.

But it seemed like Wayland had WLA walking on eggshells in the last 30 minutes, with the Vikings seemingly playing conservative to avoid making any critical mistakes. In fact, Wayland had a big chance to take the lead with 6:13 left in the game when Kocer had a golden opportunity in front of WLA’s goal, but Narance made an amazing diving save to keep the tie intact.

“Toward the end they were showing their tired legs, but they’re still running around,” Aziz said of his team. “They’re still giving 100 percent. I can’t ask for more from the boys. I’m happy for the support. I’m happy about where the program is going and I’m optimistic about what’s going to happen in the coming years.”

After the game, Kocer was in tears as he and the rest of the team knew the importance of this game as they tied Oskosh Lourdes 3-3 last week after having a 3-1 late in the game.

“The boys knew coming in that a draw was equivalent to a loss,” Aziz said. “We needed to win the game. We drew a draw that was a state finalist last year. (After the game) a couple of my boys were in tears.

“That’s how much the game meant to them.”

But there’s still three games left in the season before postseason begins for Wayland.

“We still have the state playoffs to play for,” Aziz said. “The season is not over. We’re only going to get stronger from here.”

Follow Mark on Twitter @mmcmull2.

Mark McMullen is currently a sports reporter for the Daily Citizen. He can be reached by email at mmcmullen@wiscnews.com or by phone at 920-356-6754. Can also follow him on Twitter at @mmcmull2.