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dean hall/Lakeland Times

Lakeland goalkeeper Zach Kane comes under pressure from Merrill attackers at the goal during the boys’ soccer game Tuesday night at Lakeland Union High School.
dean hall/Lakeland Times

Lakeland goalkeeper Zach Kane comes under pressure from Merrill attackers at the goal during the boys’ soccer game Tuesday night at Lakeland Union High School.
Lakeland Union High School didn't get out to the kind of start head coach Julian Beltran envisioned for his inaugural season at the helm.

The Thunderbirds fell to visiting Merrill 4-1 in the season opener Tuesday at River Valley Bank Field.

The early trend was all positive for Lakeland. About 28 minutes into the game, freshman Mathew Cliver found the back of the net off a cross from junior Vincent Strong to give the Thunderbirds an early lead. Before long though, things started to go south in an all too familiar way.

"We were winning 1-0 in the first half," Beltran said. "We dominated the first half. I had a player go down with an injury, a midfield defender, and I didn't really have a player to substitute in that position. I tried to improvise with some players, but nothing was really working at that position. I had a big hole in the middle."

The injury to junior midfield defender Dylan Wayland proved insurmountable for a Lakeland squad that also struggled with injuries throughout the team's 2017 campaign. It wasn't the only issue for the Thunderbirds, though. Beltran said they just weren't in good enough shape. The conditioning issue, coupled with the injury to Wayland, started to show in the second half when Merrill poured in four goals to seal the victory.

"My guys started getting tired," Beltran said. "That's normal after the winter when they stop playing soccer. Merrill scored four goals, so our conditioning was pretty obviously a problem."

Blame didn't rest squarely on Lakeland though. Beltran recognized a quality opponent in Merrill.

"Merrill is a good team," he said. "They pressured really well in the second half. They scored four times. If they get opportunities, they're going to take advantage of them."

Merrill leveled the score exactly 49 minutes into the match and took the lead for good in the 67th minutes. The Bluejays added insurance goals in the 80th and 89th minutes.

Early injuries could play a big role for Lakeland as they begin their young season, but Beltran said he's confident they can make the proper adjustments to right the ship. That starts with running.

"We need to just keep working," he said. "We need to work on our conditioning. Our guys were really tired after 50 or 60 minutes and they really slowed down. We need to restructure after our injuries and keep working hard to get better."

Lakeland will look to break into the win column for the first time this season over the weekend at the Rhinelander Invitational.

The T-Birds will face three schools from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the invite, beginning with a 2 p.m. tilt against Iron Mountain today. Lakeland faces Ironwood at 11 a.m. and Kingsford at 5 p.m. tomorrow. All games will take place at the Hanson Lake Soccer Complex.