Gators put up a fight before falling to Red Raiders
By Curt Herron
Huntley got off to just the type of start that it hoped for following Tuesday's tough defeat to Dundee-Crown.
But the Red Raiders weren't that pleased with their second-half performance on Thursday, and much of that was due to Crystal Lake South.
While the Gators would have preferred a better start to the Fox Valley Conference Valley Division match, they liked how they finished.
After host Huntley collected a pair of quick goals, the sides exchanged scores to go into the break with it being a 3-1 match.
Although both sides had opportunities to change the look of the scoreboard, neither could connect and the Red Raiders won by that same score.
The teams hope to learn some lessons from the latest result, both pro and con, as the prepare to wrap up play in the regular season next week.
"I thought that we came out the way that we had talked about," Red Raiders coach Kris Grabner said. "We got the two goals but then I thought that we really let up while they just continued to come at us.
"They started to play at a higher pressure and we had some guys turning balls over who normally don't do that. Our play was fine in the first half but in the second half, it looked like we stopped trying to possess.
"Our touch was off and we had heavy legs and it didn't look good. You have to give Crystal Lake South a lot of credit since they kept putting a lot of pressure on. Finally we found the right adjustment at the end."
After seeing his squad fall into an early hole, thanks in part to the efforts of Niko Mihalopoulos, Gators coach Brian Allen liked the ending.
"We had a 20 minute lapse at the start where the guys didn't realize that you can't recreate what Niko does in training," Allen said. "You can't recreate his speed or composure and so we make two mistakes early and he's good enough to capitalize on it.
"But I loved that we got a goal back and were close to getting a second one back and we were looking at a brand new game. I think that our confidence started to grow and our work rate was good and we got our midfield involved a lot.
"We're also usually not technical on turf, but when we started to control, things started to open up and we had chances, but again, it's just that final-third mentality of forcing the keeper to make some saves and we didn't quite do that.
"I have to give a lot of credit to everybody because they really stepped up. We had a game plan with Niko and kind of deviated from that. The kids didn't put their heads down and get discouraged but instead the rose up and decided to battle them."
Both squads could see one another again in the sectional semifinal on the same field if they can capture regional championships.
Grabner realizes that his squad has the potential to go a ways in the postseason if they play at the level that they are capable of.
"We have all of the pieces, but the pieces have to come together at the right time," Grabner said. "We have the ability to attack fast but as John Wooden said, you want to play as fast as you can without making mistakes.
"And at times we try to play so fast that we make the silly mistakes. But as we go forward, I think what benefits us in the playoffs is that we saw a good team like DeKalb early. I can't say enough good things about them.
"Whichever team gets through that game is going to be prepared for the next game because it's going to be that tough. If we can put it together at the right time and stay healthy, we could go deep in the playoffs."
Allen also likes how his squad is coming together as it heads into a competitive regional featuring all FVC Valley teams, which they host.
"We'll obviously spend a lot of time looking at this film since I thought that we played well against a quality side," Allen said. "Now our goal is to come back here and play them again in the sectional.
"Everything's about the playoffs now and hopefully we can use this as a little motivation and incentive to get another crack at them. But I don't think that our regional could be more balanced than it's been with the scores so far.
"We know that we're going to have our hands full with Cary-Grove like we did the first time since it's a rivalry. But it's going to come down to what we're doing. Hopefully we can carry over the new side of the guys that we saw over the next few games."
As for Thursday's match, the Red Raiders (17-2-1, 4-1) moved in front for good about 10 minutes in when Eduardo Gonzalez linked up with Mihalopoulos,
Just a few minutes later, Mihalopoulos was on the other end of a scoring sequence, connecting with Scott Dorvilier to give the hosts a 2-0 advantage.
Although thrown for a loop by the quick one-two punch, the Gators (7-10-3, 2-3) responded to the challenge by answering with a goal of their own.
Matt Tobolt made it a 2-1 contest after he scored following a pass from Orlando Tapia to give the guests just the kind of spark that they needed.
Huntley got a little breathing room back in the 28th minute when Jack Bessey sent a throw-in to Gonzalez, who put a short try just inside of the post.
A few minutes later, Gonzalez looked for another score when he sent a corner kick toward the net but Gator Austin Lamping was there to head it away.
Late in the half, Tapia initiated a free kick and got to the subsequent loose ball before sending a shot in that was halted by keeper Austen Emery.
"Coach told us that in the past South always comes out fast and physical so we decided to come out fast in the beginning and that's what we did," Bessey said. "Coming back from the Dundee-Crown game, it was nice that were won today.
"Everyone on this team is so technical with their touches and the way that we work together and with the finishers that we have in Niko and Eduardo. It's just a case of everybody combining.
"The guys on this team are easy to get along with. They're not selfish players so we all go out there and work together well."
The Gators threatened again shortly after the break when Ryan Russmann connected with Tapia in front of the net but the latter's header went wide.
Mihalopoulos' durability was seen a short time later when he went down following a collision then picked himself back up and returned to the fray.
After Tapia and Mihalopoulos exchanged liners which sailed over the net, Jamie Quintana's free kick found Mihalopoulos, but his header was high.
Huntley nearly struck again in the 57th minute when a corner from Gonzalez went to David Pardo, but his header was punched away by Gus Alvarez.
That set up a subsequent corner kick, again from Gonzalez, and this time the Gator keeper was able to thwart another header from a Red Raider.
Gary Sexson was turned away by Emery just before the final half's midpoint and Dorvilier's try off a Quintana free kick a bit later went wide.
There was plenty of activity in the final 10 minutes, beginning with a free kick by Gator Charlie Ruff which went just a bit wide of the mark.
Following another Ruff free kick that was deflected away by a Huntley defender, Ruff sent in a corner kick, which was headed away by Bessey.
A free kick from Michael Zembrzuski went inside to Jakub Rys, who was able to get a touch on it, but Alvarez was there to thwart the effort.
As time wound down, Ruff's corner was headed away by Dorvilier and Allan Josue Barrientos's counterattack score came just after the whistle.
"I thought in the first half we sat back and were kind of scared," Ruff said. "But in the second half, I thought that we pressed higher and made them not play how they wanted to and didn't give them time. I liked how we fought back tonight.
"We did a good job of pressuring and winning the ball back and moving it around. We just need to do better in the final third with scoring goals. If we could have gotten one of those goals that we left out there, it could have changed the game.
"I feel that anybody can win our regional and if we come out strong and play hard that we can take the regional and get to the sectional and maybe get a rematch there with Huntley."
Both squads wrap up their conference action on Tuesday with the Red Raiders entertaining McHenry while the Gators play host to Prairie Ridge.