As tops seeds dropped in many Class 3A boys soccer sectionals, the top two survived in the Evanston complex. And their sectional championship matchup turned out to be a classic on Saturday afternoon.
When it was over before a packed house at Lazier Field, it was Wheeling advancing in dramatic fashion by defeating host Evanston 2-1. The Wildcats earn a spot in Tuesday's 6 p.m. supersectional at Hersey and are 1 win from making a first-ever state final appearance.
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"That was just amazing out there today," said Wheeling coach Ed Uhrik, whose team will face conference rival Barrington in a rematch of the 37th MSL Cup last month. "For 60 minutes I thought we had control of this match, but then things were turned upside-down when Evanston was awarded that PK and they put in the rebound after we didn't cover the great save Gary (Mendoza) had on the shot.
"After that, we just defended like crazy, played with a lot of heart, and now we have ourselves in the game that we've been looking forward to all year long."
After a caution opening 10 minutes, the game came to life when Wildcats all-state midfielder Jose Garcia began to see his touches increase. With the Wheeling captain distributing to teammates, Luis Herrera, Ivan Mancilla, Juan Hernandez, Frank Estrada and Alfredo Rocha, the attack proved too vibrant for Evanston, which boasts a very strong back line of its own.
"We just wanted to go out and play our game, and I really felt we did just that, and had most of the play leading up to Luis' first goal, and his second, just after the half," said Garcia.
The Central Suburban League co-champs had plenty of size and speed up top in Gus Fleps, Oli Jacques and Aaron Stone, among others, to put pressure on Wheeling's Nathan Laude and his defensive mates. But the Wildcats co-captain, in addition to Uhrik, felt his group was up to the task.
"Nathan, Rocha, Fabian (Acosta) and Michael (Hernandez) were big for us throughout, and they fought hard later on when Evanston was really coming at us," said Uhrik.
"We're never really satisfied in the back," said Laude, "but I thought we did very well for most of the day, especially toward the end when it was important for us to stay composed under pressure."
Herrera, who scored the game-winner in the sectional semifinal against New Trier, was at it again when a nfity flick forward from Mancilla put the senior through. At the end of his surging run, Herrera was on target with a wicked smash which Wildkits keeper Adam Masters had no chance to stop.
The 28th-minute goal appeared to stun Evanston, which was fortunate to get away with poor defending on a subsequent well-run short corner between Garcia and Frank Esrada.
Garcia missed just over the bar with a 22-yard free kick to open the second half. But with help from Mancilla, they conjured up an opening for Herrera off a dynamic counter, and Herrera finished from close range.
"2-0 is a tough lead to defend, especially against a team like Evanston, but I thought we were in good shape with the way we were playing," said Laude.
The Wildkits (17-2-5) got new life after they were awarded a penalty kick. Mendoza made the initial stop on Cobi Ortega's spot kick, but the rebound spilled to an opportunistic Kepler Worobec, who buried his shot at the back post at 61 minutes.
The Evanston bench thought for sure it would be sent to the spot minutes later on a 50-50 tackle which saw Stone go down. They didn't get that chance, but the Wildkits stayed in attack mode.
With Wheeling (21-1-2) unable to possess, Evanston continued to flood the area with quality serves over the top and enough deep throws and free kicks to keep the nerves of the Wildcats faithful frazzled right up until the very end.
Timothy Kenney headed wide a Stone free kick, and after Wheeling was tested one last time when Taje Davis went just over the bar in the 77th minute, Garcia, Laude and company closed out their opponents with some timely ball-winning and just enough possession to salt away the clock.
The MSL champs went into orbit as Evanston sank into a silent stare while Uhrik's club lifted the sectional trophy at Lazier Field.
"It wasn't easy down the stretch," said Uhrik, "but we hung in there and got the biggest win since I've been here."