Wheeling stops Lancers in state semifinal game
By Gary Larsen
Prior to Friday, neither Wheeling nor Lake Park had ever appeared in the IHSA state finals, and Wheeling walked away from their Class 3A semifinal match with its dream still alive -- a chance to capture the biggest first of all.
The Wildcats’ 3-0 win over the Lancers sent them into Saturday’s state title game against Edwardsville, at 7 PM at Hoffman Estates.
"These boys are great. They're a coach's dream," Wheeling coach Ed Uhrik said. "They have talent, they're coachable, they love each other, they have fun every day and do what we ask them to do. And we're not done. We have a big opponent waiting for us and it's not going to be easy, but we're not done."
In an all-DVC third-place game at 5 PM, Lake Park (21-3-3) will take on Naperville Central (18-3-2), which lost 3-1 to Edwardsville (20-3-2) in Friday’s other semifinal.
"At the beginning of the season that was our goal, to make this the full IHSA schedule and get here," Lake Park coach Anthony Passi said. "It would have been a little bit sweeter to get to the seven o'clock game instead of the five o'clock game but these guys have to be proud of what they've accomplished."
In an evenly-played game for most of the contest, Wheeling (23-1-2) got goals from Luis Herrera, Jose Garcia, and Ivan Mancilla, while Lake Park was shut out for only the second time this year.
Herrera squandered a prime scoring chance at the far post in the game’s opening minute, but the senior didn’t take long to atone for it. Herrera battled past a defender on the left side in the box and gave the Wildcats a 1-0 lead just four minutes into the game.
"I was disappointed with myself but I didn't put my head down," Luis Herrera said. "I just kept on fighting and I got the goal. I got the rebound from a defender when he tried to clear it, got the ball at my feet and I just went for it. My coaches tell me to take guys on one-vee-one and just go for it, and that's what I did."
Lancers senior mid Mike Catalano drilled a ball from long range off the post at 7 minutes, but that proved to be the closest the Lancers came to getting a quality shot on frame the rest of the contest.
"After Mike hit the post we thought that would spark us a little bit,” Passi said. “I thought we had a little bit more possession, maybe 60-40 through the midfield but we just couldn't get in to the final third.”
There are only a handful of players in Illinois that can dribble their way around and between defenders in tight space, and Wheeling’s Garcia is one of them. The senior tricked his way to a scoring chance and buried it from 18 yards out, putting the Lancers in a 2-0 hole.
"We're not used to being down," Lancers senior Joe Keane said. "We've been scoring first all season and putting teams away early. They caught us today, we didn't bring it, and it's our fault."
Lake Park senior Goose Contreras anchored a defense that hadn’t given up more than two goals in a game in nearly two months, and had six shutouts in its last eight games. But a Wheeling team that has averaged nearly three goals per game made the Lancers pay for a couple of mistakes on Friday.
Mancilla finished the day’s scoring in the game’s waning minutes, finishing at the far post on a freekick sent in by Garcia.
"In the back we just let our team down,” Contreras said. “We chose the wrong game to play our poorest but you've got to give it to Wheeling. They're a very good team. There's not a doubt in my mind that they deserved to get to where they are. (Garcia) is a special player. He's got a lot of talent and a lot of skill. He proved it tonight."
Garcia was happy to see his side play through Friday’s physical contest.
"Lake Park is a really good team and they're really rough,” Garcia said. “They play like Barrington and it was hard to beat them. It helped that we got those two goals right away and then we just fought through everything that came at us and got the win."
The Wildcats also managed to keep the Wisconsin-bound Catalano off the scoreboard, after the Lancers’ big senior scored 29 goals this year.
"Give that credit to Frankie (Estrada)," Wheeling defender Nate Laude said. "He really stepped up tonight. He really understands this season that he's not able to push forward and had to be more of a defensive midfielder. He has really filled that role very well."
Prior to the game, Estrada’s coach made it clear to him what was needed.
"I told (Estrada) that if we walked off that field and he shut down Catalano, that means he did his job," Uhrik said. "He came up to me afterwards and reminded me that I said it. I told him 'you're darn right. You're only a junior and this kid (Catalano) is going to play Big Ten Division One soccer, and that's great work on your part’."
In their super-sectional win over Barrington and their state semifinal win over Lake Park, Wheeling also had to contend with consecutive teams that – on paper – had an advantage in the air.
But with Laude and Marino Lopez playing big on set pieces, the Wildcats didn’t allow a single throw-in, corner kick, or freekick serve to beat them. Garcia, Fabian Acosta, and Francisco Arellano have also been good in the air.
“Wheeling's got a nice team and they have some solid players out there. We made a couple mental mistakes in back and it's hard to recover against a team like that," Passi said. "They're quick, they're fast, they play quick, and I think they caught us napping a little bit today."