CHAMPAIGN — Taylor Crawford found himself the center of attention as a light, cold rain splashed the St. Thomas More boys’ soccer shed last Thursday afternoon.
In the midst of a seven-day competition break — which ends at 4 p.m. Tuesday as the top-seeded Sabers (17-2-3) begin their postseason run by hosting No. 9 St. Joseph-Ogden (7-13-4) in a Class 1A regional semifinal — Crawford had praise heaped upon him.
Well, other than one STM teammate admitting he didn’t like Crawford much when the two first met.
No need to worry — they’re all good now.
“We place a high value on tradition,” STM coach James Johnson said. “Part of that is building those relationships. For Taylor, it’s great to actually hear that because sometimes high school boys don’t want to talk all corny.”
Crawford and the Sabers are gunning for their second regional title in three years, as well as their fifth in the last seven campaigns.
That they’ve gotten themselves into a solid position for that accomplishment — earning a No. 1 seed while playing on their own pitch — is a testament to multiple aspects.
First, the aforementioned relationship-building.
“The family bond at STM is greater than anywhere I’ve seen before,” Crawford said. “We play for one another. That’s our main thing.”
STM boasts plenty of experience and talent as well, led by a 12-strong senior class.
But two of those veterans — Jack Aubry and Slava Boehm — are out for the year with injuries. A third, Joe Sellett, missed roughly three quarters of this run with injury troubles.
Yet here the Sabers are, their only losses to nationally-ranked Peoria Notre Dame and another Class 2A program in Metamora.
“The way I feel about this season is mainly proud,” said senior JP Hoffman, who has banked a team-best 31 goals to go with an area-leading 29 assists. “We’ve faced a lot of adversity. ... A lot of guys assumed roles that they never thought they would’ve had to assume, and they took them in stride.”
Perhaps that even includes Hoffman, whom Johnson said “put the team on his back” at stretches during the regular season.
Sellett also has persevered to the tune of 15 goals and 12 assists, while Crawford carries 19 goals and nine assists.
“We set a goal at the beginning of the year,” Johnson said. “Just because some guys got hurt doesn’t mean they wanted to let that goal, that dream, end.”
The absences of Aubry, Boehm and, at times, Sellett haven’t deflated STM’s offense.
Even so, the Sabers have relied more on their defensive abilities to come out ahead, piling up 12 shutouts courtesy goaltender Emery Rulon and the defensemen in front of him.
“The back is more seniors this year,” said Josh Franklin, a senior defender. “We’ve all just come to trust each other and know that if the ball gets past our guy that there’s going to be somebody else there to help out.”
And if Rulon is the final line of resistance, that’s often worked out in STM’s favor.
“I played a little bit of goalie my junior year for the JV, and I probably got no shutouts. It was rough,” the senior said. “Then, coming into senior year, (assistant coach) Jake (Sellett) gave me practices before soccer even started, and I just worked really hard and just slowly kind of fell into place.”
That may be an apt description for the Sabers’ entire 2019. After all, they started 4-1-3 amid a difficult slate, primarily filled with larger-school opponents.
Now, STM is bringing its close-knit family into the Class 1A postseason with a “sky’s the limit” mentality, according to Hoffman.
The Sabers have a solid postseason history to fall back on during Johnson’s nine seasons in charge, winning four 1A regional titles.
But STM has never added any other postseason hardware despite some talented teams in the past. This group is intent on changing that script.
“We’ve really had to trust Coach Johnson and his plan for us,” Sellett said. “We always just have a vision of playoffs.”
Here is the full schedule for the Class 1A St. Thomas More Regional:
MATCH 1 — No. 9 St. Joseph-Ogden 2, No. 6 Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond 1
MATCH 2 — No. 5 Judah Christian 9, No. 11 Schlarman 0
MATCH 3 — No. 1 St. Thomas More (17-2-3) vs. No. 9 St. Joseph-Ogden (7-13-4), 4 p.m.
MATCH 4 — No. 4 Uni High (6-7-6) vs. No. 5 Judah Christian (15-5-1), 4 p.m.
MATCH 5 — Winner Match 3 vs. Winner Match 4, 4 p.m.