Niestrom-to-Meyer saves the day for Red Devils
By Matt Le Cren
Geneva was on the verge of becoming the first team to shut out Hinsdale Central this season.
Then Christian Meyer did his thing.
In yet another example of a great player making a great play with the game on the line, Meyer ran onto a long pass from Jack Niestrom and scored with 17 seconds remaining to give the visiting Red Devils a dramatic 1-0 victory Thursday night in Geneva.
It was the 12th goal of the season for the senior striker and one of the most memorable.
“We haven’t been shut out all year so that was obviously key to keeping that streak alive,” Meyer said. “I think that game was like a playoff game; real intense.
“It was their Senior Night so credit to Geneva. They played real hard. They kept us contained and then Coach [Mike] Wiggins always stresses never give up on the play.”
Meyer heeded that advice when Niestrom launched a ball from midfield toward the Geneva penalty area.
The Vikings appeared to be in good shape with two defenders back in front of senior goalie Joe Mozden, but the speedy Meyer beat Mozden to the ball and as both went to the ground rolled a shot that trickled into the net before the defenders could get there.
“I saw there was still some time left so I wanted to keep fighting and luckily I was able to get to it,” Meyer said. “I hit it right before the top of the box and that’s always the kind of no man’s land for a goalie because he doesn’t know whether to come out and kick it or not.
“I was able to poke it before he got there. I didn’t know if it was going to cross the line. Luckily it did.”
It ruined what had been a great Senior Night for Mozden and the Vikings (7-9), who impressively held Hinsdale Central’s high-powered offense in check for the first 79 minutes. Defenders Dylan Lange, Matt Luetzen and Matt D’Onofrio limited the Red Devils (15-0-2) to only a handful of dangerous chances and Mozden came up with five saves, including a diving save on a 27-yard shot by Bryan Loebig and a leaping grab on a 39-yard free kick from Evan Floersch that was headed just under the crossbar with 5:00 left.
But Meyer’s play at the end negated all that.
“I went out hard,” Mozden said of the decisive play. “I guess it was just a lack of communication between me and my last defender. It was my bad on the miscommunication but I just wish we could finish out games.”
The ending was an unfortunate case of déjà vu for Geneva, which now has lost five 1-0 decisions. One of them was against rival Batavia, which scored with 11 seconds left in that match.
“For us what kills us is we have to stay focused the entire time,” Geneva midfielder Calen Colbert said. “I thought we played well defensively but sometimes it’s the little things that get us in the end. But on the opposite side we’ve got to put something in the net, too.”
Ah, but that is easier said than done against the Red Devils, who have allowed just 10 goals this season and shut out nine teams, including their last three. The Vikings mustered only six shots, most of which came on counterattacks.
Hinsdale Central goalie Wes Bergevin made four saves, only two of which were difficult. The first was a diving effort to parry a 22-yard bender from Jason Lagger in the first half and the other a stop on a 12-yard bullet by Beck Nebergall that would have been dangerous if he wasn’t in the perfect position.
The Vikings had two other opportunities but both shots from French exchange student Igor Honore sailed over the crossbar.
“It would have been a nice treat for our senior boys,” Geneva coach Ryan Estabrook said. “They’ve been through a lot the past couple years with close losses like this. Central’s a quality team obviously. They had the run of play quite a bit but I didn’t feel like we gave them a lot of dangerous chances.”
The Vikings feted seniors Mozden, Honore, Urben, Nebergall, Kyle Muzzarelli, Kris Brandli and Grant Bracken at halftime. Bracken, a co-captain and three-year starter, couldn’t play after being diagnosed earlier in the day with mononucleosis, which likely will end his season.
“It was our first game without him,” Estabrook said. “So that was an emotional experience for our kids and took away a little bit of our offensive firepower.”
But there was nothing lacking about Geneva’s defense.
“We came out aggressively,” Mozden said. “That’s one big thing we emphasized this game. We know they’re skilled and we respect them but we didn’t fear them and I think that’s what got us through almost the entire game.
“The effort was great but it would have been even better if we could finish out games. We’ve got to get some chances on net.”
The Red Devils were thinking the same thing as they were being stymied despite controlling the midfield in the second half, so Wiggins opted to go with three forwards, putting Sam Johnson and Brandon Kim up top with Meyer.
“We wanted to keep the pressure on them,” Wiggins said. “I thought the pressure we were putting on them was good but we didn’t quite think it was good enough.
“I thought the change we made with about 22 minutes left to add that third forward made a difference. What it did was I thought it stretched their backs and really opened up Christian for the run that he made. Jack couldn’t have played a better ball.”
It says a lot about Geneva’s defensive effort that an offense that had scored 18 goals in the last five matches was forced to change tactics.
“They’ve got a pretty big, pretty tall defense,” Meyer said. “I think they came out real intense because it’s their Senior Night.
“It wasn’t like we were playing badly. They were just very solid in the back. We had a goal wiped out for offsides, we had some chances on free kicks, but I don’t think we were as sharp as we normally are on dead balls.”
Meyer’s description of the match as a playoff-like atmosphere could pay dividends down the road for the Red Devils, who know they could be forced into situations in the postseason where they will need to score to stay alive.
“We’ve had several different situations over the course of the season where we’ve done things that I would call special,” Wiggins said. “Tonight’s another example of that. We were down and came back and won 2-1 in the championship of our tournament [against Morton].
“[The Red Devils] have been in that scenario, but tonight was an opportunity with 22 minutes left to make a change in formations and see how we’d respond. We weren’t looking for a tie. We were looking for the win and we went with a more aggressive approach in the final 22 minutes and it paid off.
“We changed the dynamic of our attack and it opened up just enough. Obviously we needed that extra second effort from Christian to make that happen, but with the formation gave us that.”
Despite the loss, the Vikings think the result gave them an opportunity to see how they could do against one of the best teams in the state.
“We weren’t afraid to go in and play an undefeated team,” Colbert said. “We saw it as a great opportunity to improve and get better going into the playoffs. I think it’s all about how we can come back after this.”
“If we can learn from this and make sure that it doesn’t happen again in the playoffs, I’ll accept these losses a lot better,” he said. “But it still stings a lot.”