Fourth-seeded Christian Liberty Academy earned a spot in the next round of the Class 1A postseason after defeating No. 5 Harvest Christian Academy (8-8-2) on Friday afternoon in a play-in contest of the Westminster Christian regional at Arlington Heights.
The Chargers (4-12-4) next meet the top-seeded regional host Warriors on Tuesday afternoon.
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Senior Connel McHigh provided the winning strike just five minutes into the second period. After that, the Chargers' backline withstood a valiant effort from the visiting Lions, who threw plenty of numbers forward in their attempt to equalize.
"It was just a real competitive and exiting game today, and much like the other two we played with them earlier in the season," said Christian Liberty coach Jed Bennett, whose club drew with the Lions (1-1) at the St. Edward tournament before defeating their guests recently 2-1 in overtime. "(Harvest) has really come a long way in just two years and they have some very good players, but I thought our guys did a very good job of managing the lead, something we haven't done well this season. And our back line and keeper (Aaron Karr) really came through for us today."
Buoyed by the trio of Adam Salowitz, Stuart Wolff, Chris DeSouza, the Lions' attack proved more dynamic than its hosts for most of the match, including in several long sequences as the visitors enjoyed the run of play while creating a handful of quality chances on frame.
Karr was called upon to save the day for the Chargers, and he did just that.
DeSouza got through at 19 minutes before unloading a well-driven drive stopped by Karr. Just after the half-hour mark, the best chance of the first period fell to Jake Tohme, who nearly had Karr in a one-on-one situation.
Karr was quick to come off his line to take a ball off the foot of Salowitz, who was put through off a heel flick from DeSouza.
But on the other end, against the run of play, McHigh made his touch count to give the Chargers the only goal they ended up needing in the 45th minute. The ball was poked free from Lions keeper Patrick McGuire, and the rebound spilled into the area for McHigh to steer the ball into the back of the net.
"In a game played so tightly as this one, sometimes a little luck goes a long way. CLA had a little of that luck work for them, and we didn't, but that's the way this game goes sometimes," said Harvest coach Jason Acres, who was a superb player in the mid- and late 90s with the PDL champion Chicago Stingers, who played at the Forest View Educational Center in Arlington Heights. "We created some terrific chances in that second half, and it felt like a goal was coming for us at one point, but we just couldn't put one into the back of the net.
"This has been a great group to work with, and when you consider we went just 5-13-1 last fall, this has been quite a turnaround for these boys. They have worked very hard to improve as soccer players and as young men."
After the McHigh strike, it was up to the backline unit of Tom Salsgiver, James Warda and Josh Nicholson to protect the lead. Senior David Colbert, stationed just in front of his mates, and Travis Bennett also helped keep the defensive effort cohesive.
"Our defense really stepped up today," said Colbert, who ran for 80 minutes on both sides of the ball while providing quality serves out of the back to his teammates. "When (David) Morrison went out with an injury, my role changed a little more for us, and I was asked to play more as a defensive-mid, but I still went forward when I could."
There were several anxious moments for the Chargers' fans, particularly when Jake Adams hit the woodwork with a wicked blast from 25 yards in the 64th minute, and six minutes later, when DeSouza nearly connected with Alex Reinhold at the back post.
Christian Liberty nearly doubled its lead four minutes from time when McHigh helped create a quality chance for Jack Salsgiver, but the shot went wide.
"Credit Christian Liberty after losing so many talented players from its conference championship team of a year ago for putting together a nice performance to win this game," said Acres. "For this team, it has been a very good year, and the program is only going to get better and better from here on out."