Lions edged by Mustangs in sectional title match
By Matt Le Cren
Lyons Township and Morton have played each other nine times over the past nine seasons.
And every one of the matches, six of which have been playoff games, has been decided by one goal.
The latest chapter in that storied rivalry was written Friday in Darien and while it was thrilling to watch, it might not be one that the Lions fondly recall.
That’s because Morton eked out a 1-0 victory over LT to win the Class 3A Hinsdale South Sectional championship.
“It’s always a great rivalry with Morton,” senior Frankie Kocimski said. “When us two teams step on the field it’s going to be a great game overall and I think we got a great game out here and they just found the seams and did everything right.”
Indeed, on a rain-soaked day when good scoring chances were at a premium, the second-seeded Mustangs (26-2) found a way to prevail.
Edgar Garcia scored the lone goal when he received Alonso Fregoso’s pass from the left wing at the top of the box, made a cutback move to find a small opening and fired a 19-yard shot into the lower left corner of the net with 14:08 left in the first half.
That was all Morton needed to play its preferred style, which means packing in the defense and withstanding whatever offense a team can throw at it.
LT (17-3-3) had its 10-match winning streak halted in the process. Its previous loss, 3-0 against Hinsdale Central on September 28, marked the only other time that it was shutout.
“They came out harder than us first half, got that first goal and they kind of packed it in and did everything right,” Kocimski said.
“Hats off to them; they’re a great team. Best of luck to them going forward but unfortunately we couldn’t come up with the ‘W’ today.”
Kocimski had the only golden scoring chance for the Lions, which came eight minutes before Garcia scored.
The lanky senior forward got loose in the Morton box and fired from eight yards out, but Mustangs goalie Ian Chacon slid out and stopped the ball with his chest.
Chacon finished with five saves, but none was anywhere near as difficult as the stop on Kocimski.
“I got through,” Kocimski said. “I thought I had it. I looked up and unfortunately he grabbed it.
“When you get a team that plays 28 games together and wins 26 of them there’s going to be that chemistry and to have that experience in the back, that builds up all that confidence. They’re smart and we just couldn’t get one past them today.”
The shutout was the 20th of the season for Morton and the second straight 1-0 victory in the playoffs. The Mustangs also knocked off Benet Academy by the same score in the semifinals.
“They’re much better than advertised and they’re advertised as very good,” LT coach Paul Labbato said. “We saw first-hand right in front of us how good they actually are. They had maybe some of the best defending that I’ve seen out of any high school team in a long time.
“They defend with heart and they’re tricky on the counter and they have guys that can hit shots from deep and they find their spaces. We had one moment where we lost a guy in center mid that joined the attack late and that was it.”
Morton, which advances to the Lewis University Super-Sectional to face either Naperville Central or Waubonsie Valley on Tuesday, had several chances to increase the lead as the Lions pushed up in the second half in an attempt to get the equalizer.
But Mario Romero missed an open net after dribbling around LT goalie Peter Nolan (2 saves) at the top of the box with 3:55 remaining and the LT defenders shut down everything else.
The Lions actually had no trouble getting the ball into Morton’s end but penetrating the penalty area proved to be nearly impossible. Even Kominski’s renowned long throw-ins, of which there were plenty, didn’t lead to anything.
“The goalkeeper stopped us early on,” Labbato said. “We had a few chances and then hats off to them. They did a great job of defending us in the air. You’d think as the size that we are and all those guys in the box, nine times out of 10 a Morton player got there first or made it difficult for us to do anything.”
Of the 13 seniors who put on an LT shirt for the final time, four had been three-year performers. They were Pearman Clarke, Emilio Godinez, Spiro Kass and Kocimski.
Kocimski came closest to scoring in the second half when his cross from the right endline struck the outside of the right post. Whether it would have gone in is debatable as Chacon was in good position.
“It’s a game of inches, unfortunately, and I couldn’t sneak it by,” Kocimski said. “It kind of reflected the rest of the game. It was just bad luck.”
Morton coach Mike Caruso knows how tough it was to beat the Lions, who had eliminated unbeaten Hinsdale Central 2-1 in the semifinals.
“We battled to the end just like the other night,” Caruso said. “Very similar to the Benet game; they just kept coming and coming and we said that was a good game to test us because this was Benet with a little bit more finesse, and they showed why they beat Hinsdale Central.
“They had two big guys up top and I thought Hector [Luna] did a great job on [leading scorer Matt Murphy] and we kind of mixed and matched with [Kocimski] up there. When they got by a few times, Ian did a great job.”
So how does this stack up to some of the earlier contests between the two? Caruso ranks it with Morton’s 4-3 double-overtime victory in the 2011 sectional semifinals, which propelled the Mustangs to the state championship.
“It’s just one goal every time,” Caruso said. “That one we came from behind to get a goal in the last minute. This was right there with it.”
The Lions are 5-4 against Morton since 2005 and the squads have split the six playoff meetings.
LT beat Morton in the 2005 sectional final, the 2007 sectional semifinals and the 2010 sectional final, while Morton prevailed in the 2006 sectional title game.
In 2010, Morton beat LT in the Pepsi Showdown semifinals, while the Lions knocked off the Mustangs to win the Pepsi in 2012.
But all that is in the past for Kocimski and Labbato, who realized this match was the end of another great season.
“Knocking off Hinsdale, coming off with a record of 17-3-3, it’s not a bad season,” Kocimski said. “We got a regional championship under our belt and I know the underclassmen on the team are going to take this to the next season and definitely have a good one next year.”
The Lions have been able to compile a remarkable 72-14-9 record since capturing the 2009 state championship.
“What great seniors and the leadership they put together,” Labbato said. “We played all comers and as many good teams as we possibly could and they put together another stellar record.
“They’re very successful over a course of four years in our program and they showed a lot of class tonight. They worked really hard right until the last moment.”