Every member of the St. Viator boys soccer team will continue to thank Zach Gyuricza for the rest of this week after the sophomore helped send the Lions (20-3-3) back into the 2A state tournament.
Gyuricza's devastating 30-yard game-winning strike propelled the Lions past East Moline United 2-1 in supersectional play Tuesday night at Hampshire.
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St. Viator advances to Friday's 11 a.m. state semifinal against Urbana at Lincoln-Way North.
"We came to play tonight," said St. Viator coach Mike Taylor.
Mateo Leudo gave St. Viator a 1-goal advantage at 48 minutes, but United tied it less than 60 seconds later.
"I thought we had plenty of the run of play in the first half despite having a strong wind in our face," said Taylor, "After we nearly allowed them to come down and score in the first five minutes of the second half, we took control of the game. We possessed, created some good chances, managed the wind and came away with a well-deserved victory to get ourselves back into the tournament."
The Lions got an emotional lift before the game, with the news that senior captain Ashwin Cornelius was rejoining the starting lineup. He's made brief appearances off the bench in the previous two games as he nursed an injured knee.
"Although (Cornelis) isn't nearly 100 percent healthy, what he brings with his veteran leadership and ability to hold, distribute, and run things in the middle cannot be measured," Taylor said. "What he gave us out there tonight was a real key in our win."
"When I injured my ACL early on, I thought right then and there my season was over," Cornelius said. "But being out there tonight and being a part of this big win is something I will always remember."
Despite the gusting winds, the play from both sides was filled with plenty of speed, energy and pace, particularly in the opening 20 minutes as United's dynamic duo of Mamdou Ba and Drew Merideth, the Panthers' leading scorers with 28 goals between them, looked to put the Lions backline under pressure. Quality serves out of the back from Ben Jackson also helped United.
"They were a very good ballclub, and in the early stages they gave us some trouble," Taylor said. "But Troy (Wheeler), Michael Duszynski -- who has really come on in the last half of the year -- Ethan Wolf and Mark Tun did a good job in the back to keep their chances to a minimum."
The best chance of the game in the first half fell to United's Cruz Sandoval, who sprayed his shot wide of Lions keeper Michael McGrath.
The Lions slowly got themselves into the game, thanks in part to their ability to win balls in the middle and find forwards Spencer Moore, Jackson Owens, Nick Winter and Gyuricza.
Just after the start of the second half, Merideth roared up the center channel unmarked, and if not for a timely tackle from Ryan Henry on a retrieving mission, Merideth would have been in on McGrath.
Six minutes later, Leudo chested down a loose ball, then got a shot over United keeper Mitchell Schneider, who'd left his line in anticipation of potential trouble.
St. Viator didn't get to enjoy its lead, though, much to the delight of a large and vocal fan base which made the trek from from Moline.
"This team has been resilient all year long, and we showed it by getting even right away," said United coach Phil Weaver.
After working through the quick goal from United, the Lions gradually began to grow in confidence, beginning with a sequence which went through Leudo, Moore and then Henry, who just missed at the back post.
Minutes later, Henry help orchestrate the game-winner when he played a ball onto the foot of Gyuricza, who grabbed hold of the opportunity by squaring his shoulders and unloading a shot into an upper corner.
"Ryan gave me the ball, and I just leaned over the ball and let it go," said Gyuricza.
The 52nd-minute goal led to nearly 30 minutes of tense play as the Panthers tried to equalize.
United got a great chance to equalize when a handball just outside the box put Merideth over the ball for a Panthers free kick. It was driven into the wall but came spilling back out to the senior, whose return shot sailed wide of an open spot in the right corner.
"We got a little loose along the back, and that led to their second goal," said Weaver. "Although I'm disappointed in the result, I'm not disappointed in the effort from this team, which has provided plenty of terrific moments this season."
For St. Viator, the journey continues.
"This is one of the goals we wanted to reach this season, and now we're one more victory away from playing for the state title," said Taylor.