Wheeling's boys soccer state championship dream is still alive and well.
The Wildcats left no doubt about whether or not they belong in the Class 3A title game by handling Lake Park 3-0 in a state semifinal matchup Friday at Hoffman Estates.
That leaves them just 1 win away from the school's first boys soccer state title.
Wheeling (23-1-2) will meet Edwardsville (20-3-2) in the big game at 7 p.m. Saturday. Edwardsville scored three times in the second half to beat Naperville Central 3-1 in Friday's other semifinal.
"The last three weeks of soccer have all been like a final for us, but we're not done yet," said Wheeling coach Ed Uhrik, who along with assistant coach Kevin Lennon and standout players Jose Garcia, Luis Herrera, Nathan Laude and Ivan Mancilla appeared calm and cool after an 80-minute, box-to-box contest.
Wheeling seemed content to put aside some of its usual flair in order to conserve energy.
"We've been trying to get the guys to play a little ugly," said Lennon, who once starred as a player for Palatine coach Willie Filian. "It was windy, cold and Lake Park was big and strong and playing direct. Sometimes at this time of the year, you have to mix in a little Palatine soccer with the way we play here at Wheeling."
That's exactly what the Mid-Suburban League champs did in the early exchanges.
Mancilla put a picture-perfect ball on the foot of Herrera at four minutes, but with an open net all to himself, the senior drove his close-range shot over the bar.
Moments later, though, Herrera's motor never stopped as he tricked his way into the box, drew keeper Stephen Mack off his line, then somehow beat two defenders before finishing off the sensational run with a deft delivery into the back of the net.
"I didn't get down on myself after missing early, and just fought as hard as I could do put that first goal in for us," said Herrera, who has scored 4 goals in the last three matches.
"Luis has broken out of his shell, and has just been so big for us during the playoffs," said Laude, Wheeling's standout defender and co-captain.
Just after the Herrera goal, Lancers star Mike Catalano just missed his 30th goal of the season when his right-footed 30-yard blast clipped the bar after a Joe Keane long throw caused the Wildcats some trouble.
The near miss from Catalano breathed life into Lake Park (21-3-3). But soon after, Garcia, an all-state senior midfielder, added to Wheeling's lead.
Working out of a little pocket behind Herrera and Mancilla, Garcia made something out of nothing with a slalom run at full speed up the center channel. He got past a defender, then finished with a devastating touch in the 14th minute.
"We had a couple of mental lapses in our own end, and they made us pay for it," said Lake Park coach Anthony Passi. "No. 11 (Herrera) and No. 10 (Mancilla) are terrific players, but Garcia is something special, and even better than we had thought."
Despite a 2-goal deficit, Lake Park's energy and ambition were still soaring as it went full-tilt in hopes of cutting into the Wheeling lead.
"We put a lot of quality balls in and created some good opportunities, and probably had 60 percent of the possession, especially in the second half," said Passi. "But we weren't as sharp as we needed to be in the final third. And the fact was, Wheeling is very quick and fast, and tough to get in on."
The Lancers were at their best when the ball was on the foot of Kevin Coria, Giovanni Ciaccio, Keane and Catalano. But as the match wore on, Catalano, who has a future at Wisconsin awaiting him, seemed to get fewer and fewer touches as the Wildcats slowly grabbed back the run of play during the final quarter hour.
"Frankie (Estrada) did a great job of marking Catalano, which wasn't easy because of his size, strength and ability," said Uhrik. "But we told him he helped keep a D-1, Big 10 player under control when we needed it the most, and that's how you win games like this one tonight."
Mancilla capped the outcome when he followed a free kick from Garcia and scored in the 80th minute.
"We had a letdown in the back at the worst time," said Lake Park captain Gustavo Contreras. "But you have to give it to Wheeling -- they are a very good team, and they deserve to be playing tomorrow night for the state title."