CHAMPAIGN — Plenty of potential hero candidates for St. Thomas More boys’ soccer exist on a match-by-match basis.
JP Hoffman, the senior captain who kept the Sabers afloat throughout 2019 as injuries plagued the program.
Joe Sellett, the offensive dynamo who is the centerpiece of various STM attacks.
Emery Rulon, the goalkeeper with double-digit shutouts on the year. Or any of six other healthy seniors, many of whom play on the defensive back line.
Yet the Sabers debuted a sleeper pick in Friday evening’s Class 1A STM Regional final versus Judah Christian when coach James Johnson thrust sophomore Blake Staab into the net after 100 minutes of soccer.
Staab’s mission: stop as many Tribe penalty kicks as possible with the season on the line.
The outcome: Staab being hoisted in the air by his teammates about 15 minutes later.
Staab laid out to save two attempts while the top-seeded Sabers converted four of their five chances, fending off fifth-seeded Judah 4-3 in PKs following scoreless regulation and overtime stretches.
“It was a huge surprise,” said Staab, who briefly entered the match earlier in the afternoon as a field substitute. “(Johnson) said just to make sure to keep goalie in the back of your mind, just in case. So when the PKs were starting to happen, I got a little nervous.”
Hoffman admitted that feeling wasn’t limited solely to Staab, who more often plays as an outside back on defense for STM (19-2-3).
“A guy’s just stepping up, taking his role,” Hoffman said. “We know in practice, we see him saving them ... and he showed up whenever he needed to.”
Johnson’s choice came after Rulon held the Tribe (16-6-1) off the board in four periods of action. So why turn to Staab?
“He’s a baseball player. He’s got quick hands,” Johnson said of Staab, the son of Champaign Central baseball coach John Staab. “We just felt like his ability to get low, just like scooping up grounders in baseball (was important), and luckily for us it paid off.”
Staab’s moment to shine arrived, in part, because Judah effectively executed its “bunkering” strategy throughout the match — described as such by Tribe coach Josh Birky.
STM outshot Judah 14-2 prior to PKs, but the Tribe refused to break. This even after three-year defensive starter Isaac Noteboom left with a first-half injury and never returned.
Caleb Aldridge, typically a key offensive facilitator, returned in a sweeper role he occupied during Wednesday’s semifinal victory over Uni High. He, Caleb Crowley, Evan Payan, Izak Brown and netminder Tyler Grenda formed a potent enough unit to stump the Sabers’ shooters.
“We looked back at our stats, and over 160 minutes when we’ve used Aldridge in the back, we haven’t been scored on,” Birky said. “I sent my coaches a rope-a-dope video of Muhammad Ali and said, ‘Can we get to round eight and get a punch in at the end?’”
Judah wound up landing a few blows once PKs commenced. Aldridge, Grenda and Joe Linsner all tallied in the Tribe’s first three tries against Staab.
They were matched by Sellett, Lukas Palomar and Taylor Crawford across STM’s first three bids versus Grenda.
Then, Staab recorded his first big stop by lunging left on Bobby Rodriquez — the same athlete who finished Wednesday’s PK triumph over Uni High with a make.
“I started to gain a little bit more confidence in myself,” Staab said.
He needed it once Grenda turned in his own block on George Comet in the Sabers’ next attempt.
This time, Staab flung himself right on Nathan Kereri’s shot to leave the final score in the hands of STM’s last kicker, Hoffman.
A high, hard boot to Grenda’s right sealed the deal.
“That was one of the best feelings, man,” Hoffman said. “It was just that feeling where you know that you didn’t let your team down. ... I was the leader that I needed to be, and it felt good.”
As the Sabers’ senior-heavy group moves on, the Tribe says goodbye to seven upperclassmen — many of whom held a significant role in Judah’s first-ever sectional final appearance last season.
“They’re the best senior class, as a group, I think we’ve ever had at the school in 20 years,” Birky said. “That’s the saddest thing for me is I don’t get to be around these guys next year.”
Johnson gets to spend at least a few more days with his own boys as they ready for Tuesday’s 1A Normal U-High Sectional semifinal against either Bloomington Cornerstone (14-2-4) or Monticello (19-2-1).
Now a five-time regional champion as the STM boys’ leader, he believes his crew “is not going to be happy with anything less than playing for a sectional title.”
And that’s not all.
“Since freshman year, all we’ve had on our mind is state senior year,” Hoffman said. “That’s been our ultimate goal, and to get this (regional) done, it means the world.”