Hopper, Sabers win sectional final in thrilling fashion

Hopper, Sabers win sectional final in thrilling fashion

DECATUR — Brianna Hopper didn't start out her time at St. Thomas More with soccer on her mind.

She'll leave, though, with a legacy-defining moment.

The STM senior goalie stopped a penalty kick during regulation and then made two saves on penalty kicks in a shootout, propelling the Sabers to a win against Carlinville on Friday evening in the Class 1A Decatur Lutheran Sectional title game.

"Brianna kept us in the game," STM coach James Johnson said. "She's the reason that we're moving on. It was a special day for her."

Both teams couldn't produce a goal through 80 minutes of regulation and two, 10-minute overtime periods, sending the 0-0 match to penalty kicks.

But then Hopper and her teammates rose up, outscoring Carlinville 4-1 in the shootout session. Senior Hayes Murray, senior Izzy Schmitt and junior Abby Leibach scored goals on STM's first three attempts, which saw Hopper produce her two saves and set up Lizzie Yonce for a dramatic finish.

Yonce, a senior, connected on her penalty kick to spark a frenetic celebration by the Sabers.

"It was just an amazing game with two great teams that kind of play a similar style," Johnson said. "Both believe in defense, and we knew it was going to be tough to get a goal."

STM (21-4-1) kept its record-setting season intact with the program's third sectional title in the last five seasons. The Sabers will make the 190-mile trip on Monday afternoon to Columbia ahead of Tuesday's 6 p.m. super-sectional match against Belleville Althoff (18-3-4). Althoff defeated Columbia 1-0 in double overtime on Friday night to win a sectional title and set up Tuesday's Elite Eight match with the Sabers.

Hopper goes into Tuesday's match with a program-record 15 shutouts this season. All the more impressive considering the three-sport athlete — she contributed to STM's state title in volleyball in the fall before suiting up with the Sabers this winter and helping STM make a regional final appearance on the hardwood — didn't start playing soccer until her sophomore season.

"We had a competition her sophomore year, and she won the job in the end," Johnson said. "The rest is history."

Part of STM's girls' soccer history was in attendance on Friday, too. Lexi Wallen, the STM goalie who had established all the previous benchmarks for Sabers' netminders to chase and helped STM reach the state tournament in 2015, took in Friday's match. The current Illinois State volleyball player and 2015 News-Gazette Female Athlete of the Year after her prowess in volleyball, basketball and soccer had to like what she saw from Hopper, who will go through graduation ceremonies with her fellow classmates on Sunday.

"Lexi is kind of a legend around STM with what she accomplished," Johnson said. "She was there to cheer us on, and to see what Brianna did, that's really cool."

Cool can describe the type of postseason run the Sabers are on, too. If STM knocks off Althoff on Tuesday, the Sabers are guaranteed to bring home the program's second-ever state trophy.

"Althoff is a great team," Johnson said. "The girls are calm and composed, more so than me usually. That's an advantage for us, especially with how many seniors we have. We may not get as hyped up as other teams have in the past, but it pays off in the end with the way they play. I admire that, and we're going to Columbia to give it our best shot."