CHAMPAIGN — Nate Allen was off to the races.
Such a scene wouldn’t have made sense earlier in Tuesday evening’s boys’ soccer match between Champaign Central and Centennial, considering the Maroons junior spent roughly 75 game minutes guarding his team’s net.
But with Central boasting a significant lead over its rival at Centennial Soccer Complex, Allen received some late field time.
And, almost immediately, he garnered a breakaway opportunity. Ball at his foot. Only Chargers backup goalkeeper Tyson Thomas to beat.
Until a whistle blast cut through the unseasonably warm air, signaling offsides.
“I thought it was on,” Allen said. “It would’ve been ecstatic.”
Allen and his pals had to settle for yet another victory instead.
Santiago Rodriguez converted four goals, assisted twice apiece by Reece Jacobson and Tim Ngugi, as Central topped Centennial 5-2.
But even as Rodriguez and the other regular scorers for the Maroons (12-2-3, 5-0-1 Big 12 Conference) continue to get plenty of publicity during another strong Central campaign, Allen and his back-line buddies are keeping things steady elsewhere on the pitch.
“They’re really tough. They’re gritty,” Maroons coach Nick Clegg said. “They don’t get as much credit as they should get, but they really do hold our team together and communicate and talk to each other.”
That was true even with Tuesday’s outcome in the bag.
Allen shouted clock updates to Maroons at the opposite end of the field. Jacobson and Spencer Bauer, both seniors, ensured teammates in front of them were exactly where they should’ve been at all times.
Jacobson did so up until the final horn, staying inside the white lines as fellow Central starters slowly subbed out of the action.
“I can help facilitate the team in general,” Jacobson said. “Being back there and stopping that run by the opposing striker is really satisfying, and I feel like it’s really impactful because if they get past me, sometimes, it’s over with.”
That Jacobson also landed on the stat sheet Tuesday — setting up one of Rodriguez’s tallies and another by Todd Marshall — is icing on the cake.
“It’s nice to see that, have a little bit of contribution to the game,” Jacobson said. “I like to help the team any way I can and maybe get something up there once in a while.”
Allen consistently has held up his end of the defensive bargain since accepting starting goaltender duties early in the season. He wound up with seven saves in this outing.
“Nate has been the definition of a great keeper,” Clegg said. “The coaches that I talk to, they’re surprised when they find out that we’ve just kind of converted him this year.”
For the Chargers (3-8-3, 1-4-1), only Ephraim Masala had an answer to Allen in net.
The junior rushed into the box as a Keith Gardner free kick sailed toward the cage, booting the ball over Allen’s head to cut Centennial’s deficit to 3-1 midway through the first half.
Masala concluded the scoring as well by beating Maroons backup Steven Cho with 21 seconds remaining.
“He brought it (Tuesday),” Chargers coach Jim Meissen said. “He needs to be more consistent because, if he (is), sky’s open for him. ... We collectively needed our forwards to do that, and he was doing a great job of that.”
Centennial is in the midst of a rough patch with Class 2A postseason seeds due out this week, losing five of its last seven tilts and tying the other two.
“We faltered in a few different games, and we just need to stay collected better and do what works for us,” Meissen said. “And when we don’t, yeah, we’re going to get hammered a little bit.”
Central largely has avoided that fate in 2019, its largest setbacks coming by two and three goals to nationally-ranked Solorio Academy and Gateway Christian, respectively.
Yes, the Rodriguez-paced offense is a big reason why.
It’s also hard to ignore Allen, Jacobson and the other Maroon defenders — because of their actions and vocal cords.
“It’s satisfying getting a stop and then being able to push it up,” Allen said, “and us getting a shot on goal, and even a good goal.”