The thrill of victory

The thrill of victory

CHAMPAIGN — Whether the Judah Christian boys' soccer team could compete with a veteran Unity squad for an entire 80 minutes in Wednesday's Class 1A St. Thomas More Regional semifinal was a legitimate question for coach Josh Birky.

After all, his team includes just five upperclassmen.

Judah hung with the Rockets for 100 minutes, going toe to toe through regulation and overtime, with both teams playing to a 2-2 tie.

Then, the sophomore-filled Tribe were calm and composed as they scored all of their penalty kicks in a 4-1 shootout win to send them to Friday's 4:30 p.m. regional title match against the host Sabers.

"They've got the talent but their bodies aren't there yet, so we took a lot from being a young team and still hanging in with these bigger guys," Birky said. "The fact that a team with a whole bunch of sophomores and freshmen could push through for 100 minutes in this kind of weather ... to pull that out and keep with it after giving up goals a couple of times, I'm just really proud of them."

The Tribe (7-8-3) showed resilience in the first half after Unity's Colby Woolcoot opened the scoring on a scramble in the penalty area off a corner kick. Five minutes later, Joe Linsner was taken down in the penalty area, and the sophomore slammed home the penalty kick to tie the game.

Linsner scored again with 13 seconds left in the half when he received a pass from Caleb Aldridge, cut right, and slotted a shot into the lower corner.

"We kind of seem to play better when we're down," Linsner said. "We fight back. We definitely kept our heads up. That was the biggest thing."

Seven minutes into the second half, Unity's Kenny Mantell dribbled the ball around Judah Christian goalkeeper Griffin Fazio and leveled the score.

Judah Christian nearly took the lead back multiple times, but Aldridge's shot from far outside the box went just over the bar and Unity defenders knocked two balls off the line.

The Rockets (10-6-2) looked like they'd score the winning goal with two minutes left in overtime. Chase Fincham sprung Mantell free with a pass out of the midfield, but Mantell's shot hit the inside of the post and bounced out.

The Rockets then missed their first two kicks of the shootout, and Judah Christian made all four of its attempts, with Linsner and Aldridge scoring along with junior Micah Mills and senior Tyler Alt.

Despite the loss, the Unity program morphed from a rebuilding team to one that finished with a winning record in 2017.

"It was better than our last couple of years," Unity coach Michel Stringer said. "Our kids are older now. We've been playing with the same group of kids for the last three years. Now they're older, so they're playing better ball and they're more competitive, and that's helped us out quite a bit ... It's going to be hard to replace some of the kids, but at the end of the day, we've got kids who are ready to play next year."

The Tribe moves on to play top-seeded STM (21-2-1), which beat them 6-0 in the first match of the season for both programs. With a young team that is developing so rapidly, Linsner thinks the Sabers will see a different team on Friday.

"We're definitely a lot more alert," Linsner said. "Our defense has gotten a lot more solid, we're controlling the midfield and we're creating a lot more chances. ... I'm really glad the freshmen and some of the younger guys could step up and play like they did. We came out (Wednesday) and those young guys were definitely ready."

In other action

Cornerstone Christian Academy 3, Fisher/Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley 1. Taylor Ricks scored on a feed from Caleb Bleich in the 40th minute to give the Bunnies a 1-0 lead at the half, but Cornerstone bounced back with three second half goals to win the match in a Class 1A regional semifinal at Bloomington. Goalkeeper Ethan Kasper had six saves for the Bunnies (11-5-4).

Herscher 3, Watseka 1. Diego Cintora scored a goal for the Warriors off an assist from Erick Avelar to tie the match at 1-1, but Herscher added two more goals to clinch the victory in a Class 1A regional semifinal at Coal City. Sahib Singh had 15 saves in goal for Watseka (7-16).Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin 3. St. Joseph-Ogden 1. The Blue Devils advanced to the Class 1A regional finals with a two-goal victory over the Sparans (10-12-3) in a regional semifinal match played at Hoopeston. BHRA (12-7) won its seventh straight match and will face Uni High (18-2-2) at 1 p.m. on Saturday in the regional title contest.