Edwardsville's high-scoring start broke the hearts of Wheeling's boys soccer team late Saturday night at Hoffman Estates High School.
In the last game of the high school season, the Tigers struck for two first-period goals, then fought and defended magnificently the entire second half to defeat the Wildcats 2-1 and capture the Class 3A boys soccer state championship for the second time in program history. Wheeling was making its first appearance in the title game.
"It wasn't our night tonight," said Wheeling coach Ed Uhrik, who saw his club find its form midway through the first half before hounding a well organized Edwardsville defensive group.
But in the end, that wasn't enough to overcome the 2-0 lead Edwardsville (21-3-2) was protecting.
"We've been a team which has started slow for most of the season," said Uhrik. "But (Edwardsville) was a good side, and they capitalized on two of their first-half chances. And that was the game."
The Tigers, who roared back on Friday to defeat Naperville Central (3-1) with three-second half goals, showed a high-tempo opening first quarter hour. That put the Wildcats under pressure from the start and forced goalkeeper Gary Mendoza into action early on with a trio of well-paced serves.
Edwardsville's Landon Paul and Brent Heinlein, two key figures in the eventual outcome, always seemed to be around the ball and threatening Mendoza and Wheeling (23-2-2).
Wheeling senior midfield standout Jose Garcia help his team get back into the match with some dazzling possession, which helped make the Tigers vulnerable while bringing Wildcats scoring threats Luis Herrera, Ivan Mancilla, Francisco Areliano and Frank Estrada into the game's flow.
Tigers keeper Brendan Heaton punched a long flip-throw from Mancilla out of the box, and moments later saved a dipping 22-yard free kick from Garcia after Mancilla was brought down.
Then Mendoza made his best save of the night, a spectacular acrobatic stop off a high shot from Austin Toby which saw the Cats keeper stay in the air long enough to steer the near-goal around the post.
But At 33 minutes, Mendoza couldn't do much about a driving angled shot from the near touchline by Paul that found the far inside netting from 25 yards.
The Tigers were then awarded an opportunity on a 50-50 tackle just outside the box, and Heinlein took full advantage by driving his shot past a Mendoza just 60 seconds before intermission.
Garcia nearly negated that goal when he zig-zagged his way into the box, only to see his strike stopped by Heaton to end the half.
"It's tough chasing 2 goals," said Uhrik. "It's something we haven't had to do. But we made some changes at the half, and I thought came out and played hard, more to the way we play the game. Then we got one back to make it a game."
A wicked free kick from Garcia went off Heaton and directly to Mancilla, who scored past a diving defender to make it a 2-1 game in the 46th minute.
The Wildcats, whose sparkling possession game was disrupted all night by the Tigers' rugged midfield play, kept searching for opportunities to start the attack through defenders Nathan Laude, Michael Hernandez and Fabian Acosta. But Edwardsville weathered the storm, allowing just a handful of deep throws during a frantic final 15 minutes.
Wheeling had its best chance to equalize when Laude found Garcia inside the box, but the attempt ended up resting on the turf just a few feet from the end line for what had to feel like an eternity for the huge Wheeling crowd.
When the final whistle sounded and Edwardsville had denied the Wildcats their first soccer title, the entire Wheeling roster fell to the field in collective disbelief.
"If somebody had told me after last year that we would be playing for the state championship this fall, I would have told them otherwise," said Uhrik. "But we made it here -- came really close, but just didn't quite get there."
After a long postgame speech and meeting with Urhik and his staff, the Mid-Suburban League champs made the slow walk out of the stadium to adoring, proud fans who cheered their heroes as they stepped into the parking lot.
"The guys won't realize it today, tomorrow, or even the next day," said Uhrik, "but what they've accomplished is something very special. I, for one, will never forget it, and it's been a real honor to be a part of what has become my second family."