A sparkling boys soccer season continues to shine even brighter for Wheeling, as the program's long wait for state has ended.
When the dust finally settled on a thrilling contest Tuesday, the Wildcats (22-1-2) had advanced to their first state tournament appearance with a 2-1 victory over Barrington in the Class 3A Hersey supersectional in Arlington Heights.
Wheeling will meet Lake Park (21-2-3) at 5 p.m. Friday in the state semifinals at Hoffman Estates High School. Naperville Central and Edwardsville are the other final four competitors.
"This game has been the only thing on my mind for the last couple of days," said Wheeling coach Ed Uhrik. "It's just consumed my every thought, and now that it's over, and we're going to the state tournament, it's still all kind of hard to believe."
Uhrik watched an own goal bring the Broncos back even in the 66th minute -- only to see Marino Lopez negate it just two minutes later to send the Wildcats fans into a frenzy.
"The ball was on me so quick I wasn't able to hit it the proper way," said Lopez, who still managed to rise high above the vaunted Broncos defense to thump his header high into the corner for what proved to be the game-winner. "It just got me in the face and went into the back of the net."
"It's been on rare occasions that anybody beats us in the air," said Barrington coach Scott Steib. "Especially in the box. But that was just a great goal, which took a special effort for it to succeed."
The Wildcats, who showed their mettle Saturday during a frantic final 20 minutes in their sectional final victory over Evanston, were from the opening whistle the sharper of the two clubs during the first quarter hour of action.
Wheeling all-state midfielder and captain Jose Garcia tested Barrington keeper Pat Deroche on two occasions before putting Lopez through on the outside with a quality defense-shredding ball that forced Deroche into another tough save.
The match then settled into a nice pattern, with plenty of ebb and flow after 20 minutes had been played.
Barrington threatened by successfully playing through its midfielders, producing a nice combination between Giles Phillips and David Conrad that led to a clean tackle from Alfredo Rocha against Andrew Simek.
"We could have been more vibrant and active in the center of the park -- that's where they clearly had the advantage on us tonight," said Steib.
A near penalty kick inspired the Wildcats' attack, much to the delight of the big crowd. After a patient buildup from Francisco Arellano, Frank Estrada and Garcia, it was ultimately Arellano, a senior, who had a go at Deroche, who made the save with confidence.
Sixty seconds later, Garcia tricked his way to the end line before driving a hard, low shot to the spot. Deroche initially saved it but the rebound spilled directly to Luis Herrera, who drove in his fourth goal in three matches.
"We've been needing and wanting Luis to make his mark, and he's been doing just that during the postseason," Garcia said.
An instant chance to draw even fell to Austin Grzebieniak on the other end, but Wheeling keeper Gary Mendoza (5 saves) denied the 52nd-minute shot.
With more urgency than ever before, Barrington poured forward as they chased the lead for the first time.
Mendoza stayed with a dipping drive from Phillips at 63 minutes but was unable to do anything about an own goal four minutes later.
That's when Jamie Tausend's bending left-footed serve from the side was redirected into the back of the net by a Wheeling defender.
"We didn't panic or lose our composure after that own goal, we didn't let it bother us at all," Lopez said. "And we just went back to playing our game and going after the go-ahead goal."
It came quicker than anyone would have thought.
Off a corner, Lopez's unconventional header stunned the Broncos from in close to start a furious fight-back from the MSL West champs, who hoped to, at the very least, send the match into overtime.
Phillips came close when his 25-yard blast just missed the back post. Then it was Connor Hennelly who nearly got in on Mendoza off a nifty flick from Logan Morris.
Juan Hernandez appeared to ice the Broncos when he finished a Garcia helper, but the sophomore was ruled offsides.
The Wildcats protected their lead during the final few minutes of regulation, then brought a cheer from their fans that probably could be heard all the way back home when the final whistle sounded.
"This is the third time we've played them this year, and without a doubt, this was the absolute best they played," Steib said. "This will be a tough one for our guys to get over. But they will, and when they do, they will realize how much they have accomplished, and how proud they should be with this season.
"On the flip side, I am so happy for Eddie and his team, and when you see the pure joy on his face, you know it's all legit and really means a lot to him. Wheeling will be a great representative of the MSL, and I wouldn't be surprised if they are celebrating even more this weekend."
Long after watching his players lift the supersectional trophy, and seeing Garcia cling to it long after the presentation, Uhrik was still beaming.
"There were a lot of meaningful wins and games along the way which helped get us here," he said, "but the bottom line is this is a team with a lot of talent, and a team which enjoys each other and playing soccer -- you cannot ask for much more than that."