Wheeling's 37-year wait for a boys soccer conference championship trophy came to an end late Thursday night at Barrington Community Park.
But it certainly didn't come easily.
Juan Hernandez steered in his sixth-round spot kick to deliver the game-winner, giving the Wildcats (17-1-2) their first-ever Mid-Suburban League boys soccer title with a 2-1 victory over Barrington via shootout in the 37th MSL Cup.
After the teams were unable to decide a champion following 100 minutes of soccer, both clubs converted 4 of their 5 spot kicks in shootout before Hernandez sparked a wild celebration at the near touchline by a big Wildcats crowd. They'd been cheering for their heroes from very start and never seemed to stop as friends, family and players stayed long after the conclusion to savor this memorable night.
"It's kind of hard to find the words right now," said Wheeling coach Ed Uhrik, as he just stepped aside and watched the outpouring of emotion from his players, who, like their coach, struggled to compose themselves after the match.
"This was all about a great team effort," said Wheeling keeper Gary Mendoza. His sensational save in the 32nd minute on Austin Grzebieniak prevented the Broncos (15-3-4) from going into the break with a 2-goal advantage.
"It was just a spectacular save, and the thing was, we were right there for the rebound," said Barrington coach Scott Steib. "But their keeper never let go, and held on even when he came down on the ground after the save."
The Wildcats opened up on the front foot, enjoying the run of play and most of the possession during the first quarter-hour, with Jose Garcia, Ivan Mantilla, Frank Estrada and Luis Herrera having the bulk of the touches for the Wildcats' vibrant attack.
But the visitors remained unable to get anything of value directed at Barrington keeper Pat Deroche, thanks in part to a defensive collar Broncos defender Giles Phillips put around Wheeling all-stater Jose Garcia for most of the first 80 minutes.
"Phillips did as good a job of marking Jose as anyone this season, and I told him so after the game, and added that I am not looking forward to seeing him against us next year either," said Uhrik of the Broncos' junior defensive midfielder.
Logan Morris had Barrington's goal, capping a nice sequence in the 20th minute by converting a rebound chance after Phillips delivered a blistering drive off the underside of the frame.
After the Mendoza save on Grzebieniak, Casey Slingo went wide following a Sean Kim corner to end a fairly productive first half for the MSL West champs.
"We had our chances to be up 2-0 at the break, while not allowing them as much as a sniff in our end," said Steib, "but good old No. 13 (Garcia) conjured up some magic to get that PK and his team even. And then both teams settled in, and maybe we didn't play with as much confidence or composure in the second half as we did in the first."
Garcia pulled a cunning move from his bag of tricks to beat a pair of defenders and slide past another, all the time as if the ball was on a string as he somehow kept in possession, before he was tripped up inside the box. The MSL East player of the year calmly drove his spot kick past Deroche to draw the Wildcats level at 59 minutes.
The Wildcats faithful hoped for another PK 10 minutes later when a lovely 1-2 combination from Garcia to Herrera put the senior through, but the center official ruled that the Broncos' backline tackle of Herrera was well played.
Fabian Acosta, Marino Lopez, Francisco Arellano and Garcia were perfect with their spot kicks, as were the Broncos' Morris, Jamie Tausend, Jason Frenk and Connor Hennelly to send the shootout into a sixth round, and sudden death.
Hernandez drove his attempt into the back of the net before Mendoza turned away Tyler Anderson.
"Barrington is a great team and opponent, and we knew they would give us trouble with their style, and the way they defend," said Garcia. "But we found a way to win, and all I can say is it feels just amazing right now to finally be MSL champs."
"This is the third straight shootout loss for us in the MSL Cup, and quite frankly, I am getting a little tired of it all," said Steib. "But I am very happy for Ed, his staff, and the Wheeling program. They are deserving champions of our conference."