Big games, big stakes

Big games, big stakes

Sabers, Illineks mirror images

The personnel is different. The styles clash.

The St. Thomas More boys' soccer team relies on strong defense and pushes the ball up to its talented forwards as quickly as possible, including an athletic finisher who is efficient in front of goal. Uni High plays through the midfield, looks for short passes and uses its two pint-sized All-Area First Team twins, Rahi and Omeed Miraftab-Salo, who double as dribbling maestros, to finish near the net.

But for all of their distinctions, STM, coached by James Johnson, and Uni High, guided by Phil Anders, find themselves locked in a battle for the distinction of the area's top small-school team. And Monday's 1-1 tie did nothing to draw a line between the two programs.

"Our teams are contrasts in two different styles," Anders said. "I think (Monday night's game) could very well be a preview. I told James, well, neither one of us will be coming into a postseason match over-confident."

The results beyond Monday's contest bear out that conclusion. Both teams topped Champaign Central 1-0 and lost 3-1 to. Both teams also return most of their lineups from a season ago, including their top players.

STM's point of emphasis is up top and in the back. Joe Hoffman has scored 14 goals on the year, while goalkeeper Jake Sellett and defender Nick Fruehling lead what Johnson called one of the best back lines he's had at STM, a place he's coached at since 2011.

Johnson said developing that attack, which includes skilled players like Joe Sellett, JP Hoffman, JP Ridge and Bobby Kapolnek, will be crucial to the Sabers' success.

"Teams are keying on Joe," Johnson said. "He's talented, and it's only going to get more tough to score. I've got to give credit to Joe. ... He's a goal scorer, he really is. He finds ways to score that aren't traditional breakaway goals. But I can tell you right now that developing these guys that are right on the edge there (is important). I feel like we're close to breaking through to that next level and it's got to be more than a one-dimensional attack."

Uni meanwhile, has developed that secondary attacker alongside Rahi Miraftab-Salo, who has scored 78 goals thus far in his high school career. Paul D'Angelo leads the Illineks with 10 goals as the season reaches its midway point.

"Rahi has a target on his back because every team knows what he's capable of," Anders said. "He'll beat three or four players when he gets the opportunity. But kind of counter-balancing that right now is, Paul ... and a majority of those finishes are pretty authoritative. Rahi attracts a lot of the attention and Paul stepping up like he has has been extremely effective."

In the end, Uni (9-2-1) and STM (10-2-1) will have to wait to settle who's the top 1A team in the area. Luckily, they'll likely play one more time in the playoffs.

"We've been trying to fight it out as top dogs on the small school high school scene in the area for the last couple of years, but they've had the edge when it counts," Johnson said. "We do look at the game every year with Uni as, they're kind of the measuring stick. We see that we're right there, but the work's not done yet."

Vikings working out the kinks

DANVILLE — Danville lost just three seniors from last year's team, but when he was asked how he's tried to replace Ethan Norton and Darien and Drake Jackson, coach Chris Griffin laughed.

"Which game?" Griffin said. "We're just really trying to best figure out how to maximize what we have."

Surprisingly, it's not Norton's all-state production up top that's been most difficult to replace.

Junior Kevin Sanchez has scored 13 goals during the Vikings' 5-3 start to the season in Norton's stead.

"He's really kind of stepped in and, I don't want to say he filled the shoes of Ethan because that's hard to do, but he's certainly done a good job in stepping into that lead striker role to help the team go forward," Griffin said.

The Jacksons' roles in central midfield and at outside back has been more difficult for the Vikings to replicate, but Danville returns reigning News-Gazette Player of the Year Caleb Griffin.

Knowing where to use the senior, though, has been one of Chris Griffin's quandaries. After he scored 18 goals and dished out 12 assists from the center back spot last year, Caleb Griffin has primarily played in central midfield.

After not posting a shutout through seven games, though, Chris Griffin said he'd move his son back to defense.

"We're just giving up too many goals," Chris Griffin said. "You can't win many soccer games giving up that many. ... (Caleb) reads the game extremely well and communicates really well. What we've been lacking this year is the leadership and the focal point and the ability to read the game from the back. As much as we need Caleb in the midfield ... we just can't afford to have him as a midfielder."

As the Vikings began Big 12 play on Tuesday night, Danville hopes it can finally find the right mix.

"We're trying to figure out how to best position our team," Chris Griffin said. "We're very much a work in progress."

Bulldogs not satisfied yet

MAHOMET — The Mahomet-Seymour coaching staff knew Ethan Mansfield was a talented playmaker a year ago, but the coaches also knew they had an opening at outside back that they needed him to fill.

After All-Area first teamer Evan Lundstrom's graduation, though, they needed a replacement going forward, and the junior fit the bill.

"I knew coming in this year that I wanted him much more active than he was last year because his playmaking ability is pretty excellent," M-S coach Jeremy Davis said. "With his ability to create and to finish, I knew that would be a position he would fill well for us."

Through a 7-2-1 start, Mansfield scored eight goals and dished out three assists. Austin Carr has also helped the Bulldogs replace Lundstrom's production, notching eight goals.

The back line, which Mansfield vacated, was more of a concern early in the season, but Davis has seen improvements on that level.

"I think defensively we've kind of settled in a little bit," Davis said. "We started off a little rocky back there but have kind of ironed some things out. Overall I'm pretty happy with where we are."

In a season in which his team's only two losses have come to Urbana and Centennial, though, Davis still thinks his team has something to prove against other big area schools. The Bulldogs play Danville (Sept. 23), Urbana (Sept. 25) and Champaign Central (Sept. 30) in an eight-day span.

"I feel like sometimes they rest on their laurels and I feel like we need to keep working hard if we're going to show that we're as good as some of those teams in Champaign, Urbana and Danville," Davis said. "I think we've got a lot to do before we can say we're on that level. I think we can be good, but the question is, 'Can we be better than good?' I think we've got to work a little bit harder at that."