Wheeling's dream of a Mid-Suburban League Cup appearance got a little closer to reality on Thursday.
But not until Jose Garcia's fourth, and without a doubt best, goal of the day found its way into the back of the net in the 88th minute to beat Hersey 4-3 and keep the hopes alive for the Wildcats (12-1-2, 5-1-1, 16 points), who nearly gave away a 3-1 lead to the MSL East leader.
"What can you say about Jose?" said thrilled Wheeling coach Ed Uhrik, who saw the chances for his club begin to unravel on Tuesday night after the Wildcats lost their first match of the season to Fremd (1-0). On that same night, the Huskies (10-2-2, 6-2-0, 18) won their second consecutive match in overtime over Schaumburg to take over the top spot in the conference.
"You kind of come to expect some of the things Jose does out there," Uhrik said. "But he was just something else, and we really needed it after Hersey came back, and really had us on our heels for most of the second half."
When the Huskies shocked their guests and took the lead in the eighth minute on the first of 3 goals from Michale Kaczor, it appeared Garcia and company might be in for another long day on the turf at Roland Goins Stadium.
Hersey had won its last four matches to leapfrog over Wheeling and Elk Grove for the title race.
"Going into the game, we knew it was a must-win situation for us," said Garcia, who last week became the fifth-best scorer in program history. "And to be in that type of game against a team like Hersey only made it that much tougher for us."
But Garcia and company -- namely Juan Hernandez, Frank Estrada and Francisco Arellano -- had plenty of ideas and invention in the Huskies' end after the Kaczor goal.
Shortly thereafter, Garcia drew the Wildcats even in the 20th minute and then ahead when he curled his free kick around the wall and past keeper Cristian Carranza.
Three minutes later, Garcia was hauled down inside the box after a put-through from a ball out of the back. The three-year star converted his spot kick to send the Wildcats into intermission with a 3-1 advantage.
"We nearly gave the game away in that first half, and were lucky not too," said Hersey coach Darren Llewellyn. "But we made some changes in our formation at the half, and almost played a version of a 4-2-3-1, or 4-2-2-2.
"After a while, it appeared to take the wind out of the sails of Wheeling, and that great attacking soccer they play kind of stalled."
Llewellyn pushed defensive midfielder Conor Reynolds to the Wildcats' last man and put up a big, strong and tall wall behind Reynolds. The play of Kaczor and Alex Mueller in particular helped keep the ball out of the Huskies' area after the break.
"We know Darren wouldn't stand pat and would come up with some kind of tactical move to slow us down, and create chances for them in the second half, Uhrik said. "And it worked."
What worked best for the Huskies was set-piece opportunities, and lots of them. Wheeling conceded deep throws and corners throughout the second period.
The piercing long throws from Reynolds and well-aimed corners from John Cappuccitti helped put the Wildcats under pressure. Kaczor made it 3-2 in the 55th minute when he headed a long throw from Reynolds.
That duo was at it again at 67 minutes when the big senior fired in the equalizer at the back post.
In between, and after the two Kaczor strikes, Wildcats keeper Gary Mendoza was sensational. He basically pulled two sure goals out of the net in a sequence which saw Reynolds and Cappuccitti put five dangerous balls into the box.
"Mendoza was just phenomenal," Llewellyn said.
The Wildcats held firm in the final minutes of regulation and seemed rejuvenated in the first extra session.
Garcia's game-winner was a thing of beauty. After Hernandez played a nice ball from the right flank to his teammate, it was all Garcia. In a crowd, he somehow tricked his way free of three Huskies.
Then, while carrying strong to the right post, he managed to bend his shot inside the near post with the slightest of touches with the outside of his right foot.
After getting mobbed by his teammates for several minutes, Garcia recounted the game-winning shot.
"It happened so fast, it was just kind of in the moment," he said quietly.
"Obviously, we really needed this one, and Jose, Hernandez, Mendoza were just great," Uhrik said. "And so was Marino Lopez who played with seven staples in his head from a cut in a collision the other night against Fremd. We struggled all day in the air because he wasn't our usual air-war beast. But just with him playing is key for us."
Elk Grove, which defeated Buffalo Grove 2-1, is now atop the East Division with 19 points.
The Wildcats host a tough side from Rolling Meadows on Friday while Hersey travels to Conant on Saturday.
The final week of the regular season has the Wildcats facing Hoffman Estates, Palatine and Buffalo Grove while Hersey meets MSL West-leading Barrington and then Buffalo Grove in its season finale.
"We need a little help," Llewellyn said. "But we also need to take care of our own business."