MENDOTA – There is only one way to truly define the winner of a close, aggressive and crowd-stimulating boys soccer match – penalty kicks.
The Class 1A Mendota Regional championship ended in dramatic fashion Friday as No.2-seeded Mendota and No. 3 DePue-Hall were tied at the end of regulation and at the end of two 10-minute overtime periods.
In a penalty-kick shootout, MHS sophomore goalkeeper Yanni Karahalios blocked two Little Giant attempts to help the Trojans complete a 3-2 comeback victory and claim its third regional plaque in four years.
“It was crazy. When you're waiting in the box, you just focus on the ball,” Karahalios said. “You know it's up to you. One got passed me and the next one I just wanted to save it. It's a crazy feeling when you do save it.
“On the first one, I dove the wrong way. I didn't let that get to me. I just focused on the next player's body language and I was able to get the correct timing. I got the save. It felt great. My mentality was just to get the next one.”
The Mendota penalty kicks were made by senior Ivan Figueroa, sophomore Yahir Diaz, freshman Johnathan Cortez and senior Emiliano Arteaga, while senior Calvin Schmollinger and senior Robert Harrison made goals for D-H.
With Karahalios' goaltending and the deadly feet of his scorers, Mendota coach Nick Myers was confident in his team.
“Yanni has been tremendous for us all year,” said Myers, who is in his first year of his second stint as the MHS boys soccer coach. “Yanni, game after game, has made the big save for us. He steps up and makes the save. They had three or four breakaways tonight and he came out and stopped them. He gets the stop and puts pressure on them.
“You're asking a sophomore keeper to go in the goal in a PK shootout and win it for you, and he stopped two of the first three. That's huge. In all honesty, those two saves gave our shooters even more confidence. Coach (Justin Jacobson) and I have talked, 'If we go into penalty kicks, we have the best keeper in the PK shootout.’ He's tremendous and to have him for two more years, I can sleep better at night knowing that.”
By defeating D-H, the Trojans advance to a Class 1A Peoria Christian Sectional at 6:30p.m. Tuesday against the winner of defending state champion Quincy Notre Dame and Beardstown.
Early on, it looked like the Little Giants were going to be the team traveling to Peoria as they scored the first goal of the game as Harrison made a 25-yardattempt at 19:56 to take a 1-0 lead into halftime.
It only took D-H 44 seconds to score a goal in the second half as junior Jackson Heiden put a Daniel Moreno assist in the back of the net for a 2-0 lead.
“We knew we had a good team on the field. They reacted the way I wanted them to,” said Little Giants coach Martin Moreno through translation from assistant coach Robert Rios. “I didn't think we were going to score as early as we did, but when we had a 2-0 lead, we kept going and playing how we planned to. We didn't make any subs except for when they cramped up and we had to give them a rest. Those boys played 100 minutes with no subs. They responded the way we wanted them to and we can't ask for anymore, honestly.
“We were kind of at a disadvantage. We hadn't seen them play and we didn't know what to expect. The only thing that we knew is that they're a good team. It's kind of hard to prep for that, not knowing their style, who they're strikers are or who are the defenders we should look out for.”
The Trojans (18-4-1) erased the zero on the scoreboard at the 45:33 mark when freshman Rafa Romero headed an Emiliano Arteaga corner kick into the net.
Arteaga scored a goal of his own at 67:07 off of a corner kick by Diaz to tie the game 2-2 with DePue-Hall (7-6).
“To see these guys grow as a team throughout the season and gaining that maturity level and experience, they're still mostly freshmen and sophomores, but it's like coaching a team full of juniors and seniors,” Myers said. “You can see the bond out there on the field. Down 2-0, some teams would crumble and yell at each other. They stuck with it. These guys never give up and I love it. It has been a joy coaching this team.”
After the excitement in regulation, neither team was able to score in the two overtime sessions, which led to the dramatic penalty kick ending.
“I like the example they set for the up and coming players,” Martin Moreno said. “We had 11 players for most of the year and look how far we've come. All season we've only had one or two subs and there have been injuries. That's telling the freshmen, the sophomores and the up and coming freshmen that we can get this far on just 11 players. The sky is the limit for them. It shows them it is possible to play in a regional championship if you want it. They set a good example that we can do it.”
The Trojans are excited to have the opportunity to play in a sectional and try to win the program's first sectional title.
However, it may be easier said than done since Quincy Notre Dame has quite the resume.
“We assume it's going to be Quincy because they're the defending state champs,” Myers said. “I have to assume they have a good chunk of that team back. We've had that in the back of our heads for the last couple of weeks, that they are who we're going to play in the sectional.
“I know anyone that I've talked to isn't giving us much of a chance, but the guys are excited for it and I'm excited for it. To quote the legendary Ric Flair, 'To be the man, you have to beat the man.' We thrive in the underdog role and we're ready for that. I'm excited for us to go in as the underdog with no expectations.”
Myers also added he likes having a young team because they're not scared of any opponent.
Karahalios didn't show any fear as he realizes the Trojans are hungry to advance further than they have before.
“With us losing in the finals of last year's sectional (to Earlville), we really want it,” Karahalios said. “I'm pretty sure we're going to go harder than ever to get a sectional title for us.”