In a test of endurance, will and patience, top-seeded St. Viator earned a hard-fought 1-0 victory Saturday afternoon over Harvard (17-6-2) to capture the Grayslake Central sectional crown and a spot in the Class 2A Hampshire supersectional Tuesday evening against East Moline United.
Mateo Leudo helped snap the Lions (18-3-3) out of 50-minute malaise when he cut across the face of the goal to head in a marvelous serve from Troy Wheeler.
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Ashwin Cornelius, back in action after an extended stay on the injury list, got the play to develop when he put Wheeler through down the left side.
The Lions' victory puts them one match away from advancing into the 2A state tournament next weekend in Frankfort.
"We opened up with a very good 20 minutes of soccer, but we didn't finish our chances to help keep (Harvard) in the game, and at this time of the year, that can be a dangerous thing to do," said Wheeler, who along with back-line mates Michael Duszynski and Ethan Wolf limited quality chances at St. Viator keeper Michael McGrath.
"If we put in those good chances we created, maybe it's then 2- or 3-0 and it's a different story," said Lions coach Mike Taylor. "But by allowing (Harvard) to stay close and build some confidence. We then were fighting hard right up through the end."
The Lions clearly dominated the run of play in the first half-hour, with front-runners Spencer Moore and Jackson Owens dangerous with nearly every touch the duo got up top.
Outside midfielders Ryan Henry and Zach Gyuricza led a strong Lions attack, keeping the Hornets in their own end despite having the wind at their back to open the match.
"St. Viator is a very talented team, but our biggest issue in that first half was our inability to win first and second balls in the midfield, and that's were we struggled until we finally were able to do so later on," said Harvard coach David Abel.
Wheeler was unable to put a header past Hornets keeper Jacob Hurdle at eight minutes after a third straight corner sent in from Kevin Klinkenberg.
Just moments after coming into the match, Kyle Sukowicz used a nifty little touch with the outside of his shooting boot to force Hurdle into a save in the 18th minute.
As the chances continued to pile up -- along with the missed opportunities to finish -- the frustration level for the Lions increased also.
Taylor and his staff made it clear at the break of the dangers of keeping a hardworking club such as Harvard within striking distance.
The Lions took heed of the Taylor pep talk, and it wasn't long before they scored the only goal of the match.
Cornelius, sidelined since an ACL injury to his right knee Sept. 15, threaded a brilliant ball to Wheeler.
Wheeler joined the attack out of the back before sending a ball straight to Leudo, who drove his header in from close range.
"I guess it took the work of a defender to give our attack some life," laughed Wheeler, a two-time Daily Herald all-area player.
The Lions had several chances to double their lead after the Leudo goal. The best of them came in a five-minute flurry which saw both Miles McDonnell and Henry each having a go from in close -- only to watch Hurdle again save the day.
"St. Viator was the better and most experienced team in this sectional, but my guys left everything they had out there today" said Abel. "That's all you really ask for when your playing this far into the state tournament, and I am very proud of that."
"This is the time of the year that you do whatever you have to do to keep going, and although we didn't play real good soccer after that opening 20 minutes, we still found a way to win," said Taylor. "We will rest a few players on Monday in advance of our match with East Moline, and look for them to come out on Tuesday and give the type of work rate they will need to give if they hope to be playing next weekend."
East Moline United (21-3-3) defeated Kaneland 2-1 in OT on Friday to earn its berth at Hampshire.