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Duluth's playoff return ends quickly

SUWANEE -- After a six-year absence from postseason competition, Duluth boys soccer head coach Greg Tavani was hopeful that his team could make a big statement in this year's Class AAAAAA state playoffs.

But things just didn't go Duluth's way as Lambert built a 3-0 lead in the first half and held off a determined effort in the second half by the Wildcats for a 3-1 win on Wednesday night.

The loss ended the season for Duluth (10-5-1), which reached the playoffs for the first time since 2007 after finishing third in the rugged Region 7-AAAAAA.

"It was a great season and I am real proud of our team," Tavani said. "We had a good balance of experienced players and young players and it was real good to see that come together. From the beginning, this group was hungry and really wanted it." Lambert, winner of the Class AAAA state title a year ago, benefited from that playoff experience by scoring three goals in the first half.

Two of those came from Cooper Coughlin, who scored the first goal of the match in the 15th minute and added another eight minutes later with a laser from more than 30 yards out.

The Wildcats looked like the 2-0 hole wasn't going to get any deeper, but Lambert put in its third goal of the first half when Mitch Fandos corraled a loose ball after a free kick, finding himself wide open from point-blank range for an easy goal.

The 3-0 margin for Lambert was needed as Duluth found itself in the second half an played much more agressively on offense.

That led to several good looks for Duluth in the opening minutes of the second half, finally breaking through when Nikolai Iotov took a feed up the middle and made a nice sliding shot past two defenders with just more than 35 minutes left to cut the score to 3-1. But Iotov's goal would be the only one Duluth could muster, leaving Duluth on the short end of the 3-1 score.

"We clearly dominated the second half," Tavani said.

"We should've played that way from the beginning but maybe that's a lack of our playoff experience. We were confident coming in but we didn't show that in the first half. We showed in the second half how we can play but we need to do that the whole game."

Lambert also took advantage of the depth on its roster as two starters were forced to leave the game with injuries. The coaching staff also looked to its reserves as a pair of assistants oversaw the match due to head coach Chris Wilson's absence from a red card he received late in the regular season.

"We had a major obstacle tonight in that our head coach wasn't here," assistant Scott Luthart said, who coached Grayson before coming to Lambert four years ago. "We had a good scouting report on Duluth and had a good game plan, which was evidenced more in the first half than the second. When you get up 3-0 in the first half on a good playoff team, that speaks volumes on how the game plan and preparation came to fruition."

Lambert will be at home next Wednesday in the second round against South Gwinnett, which upset Region 5-AAAAAA champ Lassiter 2-1.