Warriors capture second straight sectional title
By Curt Herron
Friday's Class 2A Central Sectional championship in Burlington was the kind of match that definitely worried Wheaton Academy coach Jeff Brooke.
Beside the obvious implications of advancing as one of the final eight teams in the state, there were other obstacles that faced the Warriors.
One was the fact that Wheaton Academy had to make the long trip west to take on the host Rockets, who were enjoying a memorable 22-2 campaign.
Then throw in some rain with cold weather on a slick grass field and you had the makings for one of those matches where anything could happen.
But the Warriors were determined to avoid any drama on this night, and thanks to another fine effort from the entire squad, they did just that.
WA moved in front for good in the eighth minute and broke things open with two scores late in the opening half to claim a 4-0 halftime lead.
The sides swapped a pair of goals during the final 40 minutes before the Warriors put the finishing touches on their 6-2 win over the Rockets.
It's the second straight sectional title for WA (21-3-1), marking the second time the program pulled off that feat (2004-05 being the other).
Thanks to its 10th straight win, Brooke's squad advances to Tuesday's 6 p.m. DeKalb Super-Sectional for the chance to make a return state trip.
The Warriors will meet the winners of tonight's Morton Sectional championship between the hosts and defending state champion Peoria Notre Dame.
In last year's Class 2A semifinals, the Irish captured a 2-1 victory on penalties over WA, which wound up settling for a fourth-place finish.
WA continued to demonstrate its explosive offense during the postseason, during which time it's outscored its four opponents by a 21-4 margin.
Casey Zimmerman led the winners with a pair of scores while Reid Culberson, Ty Seager, Sam Hardy and Matthew Ruff also chipped in with goals.
"We knew with the record that Burlington Central had that they were a good team and if we didn't come out strong, especially with the rain and on this pitch, that it was going to be a pretty tough game," Zimmerman said. "But we came with hunger and pretty good passion for the goal.
"Last year has been a big motivation for us this year. We realize that we got downstate and got fourth place but could have done better if we'd finished our PKs. We have a great group of guys who are playing to the best of their ability and I could never ask any more from them.
"We're pretty much brothers and are stronger together. And Jeff schedules us against the best teams so that we can get up to this level and be able to play teams like Burlington Central or PND and Morton, where we're going to get challenged and they're going to give us a good game."
A year ago, the Warriors got the opportunity to host the sectional on their field so they realized what a big advantage the home field was.
Despite a big crowd of local supporters who showed up to support Michael Gecan's squad, a good-sized Warriors contingent also made the trip.
And they were not disappointed by what they saw as WA grabbed the early advantage and was firmly in control of things heading into the break.
"We had a lot of respect for Burlington Central, who had put together a great year," Brooke said. "Congratulations to them on having such a great year and winning over 20 games and winning their conference. I'm just proud of guys for coming out and playing our style.
"It was our goal to dictate the pace of play and therefore the flow of the game. I was proud of the guys for playing one- and two-touch in the attacking third to combine and get great looks at the goal. Reid hit a great strike to get us going and after that, it was individuals rising up and combining with other individuals and we're dangerous when we do that.
"Throughout the whole year we've been trying to build up to a standard of play that we try to define and we feel that if we're able to do that, that we're not impacted by who we play against. We obviously have to adjust to different teams but we just try to play our style and the guys have bought into that."
One thing that clearly has been fueling the fire for the Warriors is the fact that they got so close to the goal of winning state last season.
"The experience of how far we went last year combined with some of the great competition that we've had this year through playing in the Pepsi, against some teams in our conference and some nonconference teams has prepared us for a night light tonight where the lights were bright and the crowd would be big.
"Tonight we had a good opponent and we know that we'll have another great opponent on Tuesday. We're trying to peak at the right time and we've won 10 in a row. So we're excited, absolutely."
Culberson got things started when he connected in the eighth minute. Unfortunately, he had to be helped off the field shortly after the break.
The hosts tried to counter the early goal but James Raney sent a try to Drew Sezonov and Jacob Schutta bounced one off of the post a bit later.
WA grabbed a 2-0 advantage in the 24th minute when Seager scored following a breakaway, which was set up thanks to a pass from Michael Carver.
Keeper Brett Rau shut down a Seager threat a few minutes later and a cross from Parker Setran to Grant Rougas led to a header that was denied.
The visitors made it 3-0 in the 34th minute when Seager sent a pass inside to Zimmerman, who put in a close try for his first goal of the night.
After Culberson and Rougas were both thwarted on good efforts by the Rocket keeper, Sezonov returned the favor on an attempt by Alan Camarena.
WA added one more goal to its total in the 39th minute when Rougas found Hardy, who got free to give his team a four-goal lead at the break.
"It was really great since everyone contributed," Hardy said. "We had energy right away and it was key to get that first goal from Reid. But it was a bummer to see him go down.
"We definitely have motivation from last year. I'm excited about Tuesday's super-sectional, where we might get to see PND. We want to play better than we did today and hopefully just keep getting better and better."
Shortly after Culberson had to assisted off of the field, the Warriors threatened with a pair of headers from Seager and Hunter Finnegan.
Just before the half's midpoint, Hardy had a long free kick stopped but WA connected again in the 65th minute when Rougas found Zimmerman.
After Sean Fitzgerald was turned away with 10 minutes left, a Fitzgerald deflection went to Matt O'Connor, who scored in the 73rd minute.
But the Warriors answered just 30 seconds after that score when Jacob Hoepner sent a pass inside to Ruff, who got his squad's final goal.
The hosts, who last won a sectional title in 2010, closed out the scoring in the 79th minute when O'Connor connected for the second time.
"Burlington Central was a great side and they were very physical but we kept to our play," Jacob Fernandes said. "We played our style and worked hard and were able to get the result.
"Over the year we've established fantastic chemistry. We play really well together and I would say that we're a tight brotherhood for Christ. We've got to just take it one game at a time and not look past anyone."
Another positive sign for the Warriors as they head into the final week of the season is having four-year performer Zeb Lewis on the field.
Forced to watch much of the season from the bench due to injury, Lewis has an interesting perspective on why WA has been performing so well.
"This was the first time that I've played in awhile and it feels great to win the sectional," Lewis said. "That's got to be the best half of soccer and 60 minutes that I've seen from this team all year. It was some of the best stuff that I've seen as a collective group. Tonight was great since some different guys broke through.
"Probably the biggest change for us this year is that things are so meshed through every grade, which creates great chemistry. It happened a little bit last year but I feel like everyone is really connected really well this year."