NORMAL — When it comes to IHSA state titles at Urbana University High, chess and journalism don’t merely have bragging rights.
They are the only ones even in the conversation.
That could change today.
The Illineks boys’ soccer team, which before this year never had advanced to state, now is one win from bringing home a state championship trophy.
“It’s exciting,” junior midfielder Randall Hornbaker said after Uni shut out Rockford Keith Country Day School 2-0 on Friday night in the Class 1A semifinals at the Corn Crib.
“Just making it to the finals, that’s good, but we’d like to win. I think that would be pretty amazing for a school that’s not known for its athletics to get a state title in a pretty major sport.”
Standing in the Illineks’ way is an Alton Marquette team that outdueled Hinckley-Big Rock 4-3 in Friday’s first semifinal.
Uni (22-2-1) and the Explorers (19-6-1) will square off at 5 p.m. today.
Soccer often has been likened to a game of chess, and in the actual board game, the Illineks have a masterful history with seven IHSA state crowns. Uni also boasts one state title in journalism. In athletics, however, the highest finish by any Illineks team is second place in girls’ track and field in 1991. By winning Friday, Uni boys’ soccer was assured of matching that feat.
But why stop there?
“(The chess team) brings home a state trophy every year, but to bring home an athletic one, that would be big,” Uni senior midfielder Paul Seeley said.
Seeley and Hornbaker combined on the only score the Illineks would need in the 20th minute of the first half. Racing down the left side, Seeley centered a pass that Hornbaker converted for a 1-0 lead.
“That’s a play we’ve scored on that tens of times this year,” Seeley said.
Fighting for position in front of the net, Hornbaker managed to take a stab at the ball.
“The other guy tried to kick it and I stuck my foot in front and it rolled into the net,” he said. “It was just a tap; make sure it went in. And we went crazy.”
The score remained a tenuous 1-0 until, with 26:34 left in the second half, senior forward Patrick Wong sent a shot flying from about 18 yards that sailed into the net.
“That goal was huge,” Hornbaker said. “It let us feel a little bit comfortable. That team’s very good and they could easily come back from 2-0, but getting that second goal was kind of like insurance.”
It was all the insurance Uni would need thanks to a defense that kept a solid lid on the Cougars’ attack. Keith Country Day (22-4-1) entered this match with a reputation for lockdown defense, having shut out six of its last seven foes and 17 overall this season.
But it was the Illineks who came up biggest in this area, preventing Keith Country Day from recording even a single shot on goal.
Overall, Uni outshot the Cougars 12-3.
“Every game they’re getting better,” Uni coach Phil Anders said of his team’s defense.
It might take a similar effort today from the Illineks if they are to achieve their goal. Friday’s first semifinal had Anders’ full attention, and he anticipates a physical challenge in the title match.
“The teams I saw earlier (today), maybe a little more physical, maybe a little more speed,” the Uni coach said. “But we’ve seen that (before) and we’re capable of bringing our game against that type of game. As I just told the team, the ground (here) is flat, the ball’s round and there’s 11 players on the other side of the field.
“It’s no different than any game we’ve played this season. It’s just the stakes are a little higher.”