On an emotional night, host Buffalo Grove pushed its rival from Wheeling to the brink.
But in the end, the Wildcats still put the finishing touches on their first Mid-Suburban East boys soccer title since 1995 with a 2-1 victory Friday afternoon at Grant Blaney Stadium.
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Coach Ed Uhrik's Wheeling team had already earned a spot in the 37th MSL Cup against host Barrington next Thursday night following a 2-1 win over Palatine the previous day.
But by topping Buffalo Grove (3-8-6, 1-6-4) on Friday, the Wildcats (16-1-2, 9-1-1) also leapfrogged over the Broncos for top-of-the-MSL-table honors with 28 points, 2 clear of their MSL Cup opponent.
"It's been such a long time our program has played for the conference title, so we didn't want to be co-champs with Hersey -- just the outright MSL East champs," said Uhrik, whose club would have advanced even with a loss after a recent 4-3 victory over Hersey gave his Wildcats the first tie-breaker. "We weren't particularly sharp today, especially in the second half, but I think a lot of the guys were still feeling the effects of a hard-fought game last night with Palatine, and knowing that we got through after that. So I wasn't totally surprised with what we saw out there with Buffalo Grove.
"We'll get back at it again as we begin to prepare for Barrington, and I know the guys will be ready to go on Thursday."
Wheeling all-state candidate Jose Garcia did his best to change the pattern and flow of the game, but the Bison did well defending in the final third -- except for two occasions. The first came at 20 minutes when co-captain Nathan Laude thumped his header past keeper Ricardo Valencia, with Luis Herrera providing an assist.
The Bison opened the second period crisply, with Zach Masciopinto, Drew Brauner and Pat Tucharski making their mark on the match. As the Bison took charge at midfield, it seemed to be only a matter of time before they'd break through for the equalizer.
It was the Wildcats' first and only chance of the second half which became eventual game-winner. It arrived at 61 minutes when Herrera connected with Elias Cisneros, who snuck in a slowly paced shot just past the outstretched gloves of Valencia at the near post.
"I really like the way we battled back from that 2-0 deficit, but I am not surprised by the 80-minute effort the guys gave, because that's the way they have been all season long, despite us being just a 3-win team," said Buffalo Grove coach Rick Carlson. "We scored a great goal to get back in it, and we defended hard and gave the division champs a tough match. I believe that bodes well for the upcoming state playoffs."
The Bison will open the postseason next Saturday night at home against Zion-Benton.
Christian Miguel drew his club closer with a sensational side-volley strike in the 66th minute, all courtesy of a wonderful serve from teammate Nick Pilli from the right side.
Masciopinto forced Wheeling keeper Gary Mendoza to save his shot at 70 minutes, and Wildcats fans survived a few nervous moments during the next five minutes as Buffalo Grove sent numbers forward. But when the final whistle sounded, the big crowd on hand for this match and the subsequent Wheeling-Buffalo Grove homecoming football game, roared its approval when their heroes ran over to salute their fans after the victory.
"The support from throughout the student body and staff all year has been terrific, so we're thrilled to be able to give them something back in return," said Uhrik.
The Buffalo Grove athletic department took a few minutes during intermission to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Bison's first and only state soccer title.
Several former players were on hand, as well as Hall of Fame head coach John Erfort, who back on Nov. 6, 1988 watched future MSL and English Premier League star Brian McBride defeat Naperville Central 3-0 at Fremd.
"I was fortunate to be around one of the most select group of players ever assembled in high school soccer, and every day with them was just magic," Erfort told the big crowd. "I am here to tell you to enjoy your team and the sport today, tomorrow, and for as long as they are together, because when you look at the guys standing here, it's hard to believe it's already been 25 years since we were all together."
The Bison defeated three future Hall of Fame coaches on their way to lifting the big trophy, beginning with Al Knepler's Glenbrook North club (3-0) followed by the legendary Gene Baker from Granite City (2-1) before finishing off Naperville Central and coach John Paskvalich.
Erfort, with his 316 victories, combined with the illustrious aforementioned trio to win over 1,400 games during their prep careers.
The 1988 championship was the second of five overall titles won by MSL teams. Fremd won in 1984 and 1997, Palatine in 1994 and Barrington in 2007.