CHAMPAIGN — Had Eric Fenton or Jake Sellett ever before seen a soccer match conclude quite like Tuesday’s Class 1A St. Thomas More regional semifinal?
“Never,” Fenton said. “Never as a player or a coach.”
“My first one in nine years here,” Sellett added.
What Fenton’s Oakwood/Salt Fork team and Sellett’s STM squad achieved isn’t supposed to happen in the IHSA playoffs. But the Comets and Sabers couldn’t determine a match winner.
The two sides played 100 minutes — 80 in regulation and two 10-minute overtime periods — and couldn’t produce any goals between them. A lack of light led officials to move the match-deciding penalty kicks to the following day.
Top-seeded STM (16-5) and sixth-seeded O/SF (17-7) will return to the Sabers’ field at 4 p.m. Wednesday and complete their battle before fourth-seeded Monticello (17-5-1) and fifth-seeded St. Joseph-Ogden (13-8-1) play on the pitch shortly afterward for the regularly-scheduled second regional semifinal.
The two sidelines seemed to feel very differently about what started under the sun and concluded under the moon.
Fenton’s athletes sounded more upbeat and pleased with their situation. A chance to defeat a better seed and regional host after losing to that team earlier in the season (3-1 on Sept. 20).
“It’d be huge,” said Fenton, whose program’s won its only regional championship back in 2016. “(My players) haven’t seen much, and last year, we didn’t have a chance to prove what we could’ve done after going 12-1-1. So this is their first opportunity to experience this.”
Sellett’s players gave off vibes filled with angst and concern for being on the opposite edge of that sword. The word “urgency” was being shouted to the Sabers on the field just minutes into the second half.
“This is the definition of adversity,” said Sellett, whose program has captured six regional plaques in the previous 11 seasons. “We have to play two days of soccer for one match. I’m excited for it.”
STM showed off more speed and size among its roster, while O/SF compensated with strong positioning on defense and quick-strike capability on offense.
The Sabers finished with 11 shots on goal and 10 corner kicks. That shots total doesn’t include a golden opportunity for junior Immanuel Nwosu with fewer than seven minutes to play in the second overtime when he drilled a shot across his body from within the box but connected with the underside of the crossbar.
“We knew we were going to have to absorb a lot of pressure and try to hit them on the counter-attack,” Fenton said. “We had a couple good chances that we couldn’t quite finish, but I’m really pleased with how we played.”
The Comets tallied three shots on goal and two corner kicks, though they were able to put more pressure on STM’s defense than those statistics indicate. Senior Joe Lashuay and junior Dylan Diaz, for example, each narrowly missed the goal frame on dangerous looks with less than 15 minutes remaining in regulation.
“I was not upset,” Sellett said of his team’s play. “We had all the chances we needed that game, and Oakwood executed and we just didn’t finish those chances. But I’m not mad at the guys at all. It was a heck of a postseason soccer game.”
O/SF junior keeper Josh Ruch — sporting a Spider-Man-themed jersey — stood tall throughout the affair. Perhaps his biggest stop came midway through the second half when STM junior Martin Mondala wove into the box and created a short-range attempt that could’ve cleared Ruch’s head.
Instead, Ruch raised his hands and deflected the ball off the bottom of the crossbar before gaining possession.
Ruch’s performance allowed him to surpass Comets assistant coach Landon Turner for the team’s all-time single-season shutouts record with nine.
And although Ruch stayed busy, his teammates also fared well clearing the ball in some risky moments.
“Zane (Trimmell) and Jacob Taflinger have been great outside all season long, and then our center backs have just gotten better and better,” Fenton said. “(Ty Smoot) really stepped up back there, zero mistakes, and Joe’s played that position before.”
Mondala alone provided a tough assignment for the O/SF defense. The speedster made several dashes more than half the field’s length as various Comets tried to stop him without fouling. At one point during the first half, Mondala actually drove headlong into five defenders by himself and still earned a corner kick for STM.
Nwosu and juniors Cabott Craft, Anthony Hoffman and Daniel Messeh all came up with multiple good looks at the net as well.
“(Mondala) is crucial. He’s a crucial piece,” Sellett said. “We need him to play well to go deep in the postseason.”
All eyes will turn to Ruch and STM junior keeper Blake Staab when the Sabers and Comets reconvene Wednesday afternoon. Staab didn’t face nearly as much heat as Ruch on Tuesday, but laid his body on the line on a few different occasions to keep the match scoreless.
There is one clear variable to the penalty kicks session. O/SF’s leading scorer, junior Grant Powell, suffered a blow to the head late in the first half and was held out for the rest of the match because of it.
Will he be available in this new scenario?
“I guess that could be the one thing to our advantage in this whole situation, if he’s OK,” Fenton said. “Obviously, his health comes first.”
The Sabers have one advantage regardless of Powell’s status.
They can walk a short distance outside their school building to get to the field.
“I’m very happy about Oakwood having to come back,” Sellett said.