Neuqua edges WeGo to remain in UEC Valley race
By Anthony Zilis
Neuqua Valley was fortunate to nab an early two-goal lead over West Chicago on Tuesday because the second-half whistle seemed to signify a reboot of the clash of Wildcats.
After Neuqua controlled the first half of the game, with Ryan Ross and Xavi Ortiz notching goals in the 25th and 37th minutes, West Chicago came out firing.
The visitors finally broke through with goals from Eduardo Suarez and Alexis Quezada in the 47th and 74th minutes, respectively, to even things up.
But Ross saved the hosts with his second goal of the day to lead his team to a 3-2 win in Naperville and keep them in the Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division race.
Neuqua (10-5-1, 4-1-1) needs help to win a share of the title, however. That will happen if Waubonsie Valley beats front-runner Metea Valley (4-0-1) on Thursday.
“We have been like that. We have gotten up on teams and we just can't stick the stake in their heart,” Neuqua coach Skip Begley said. “They came out in the second half and put some pressure on us, got one and then got the other one.
“Luckily for us, when you're pressing and pressing as much as they were, we caught them in transition, got the third goal, and we were fortunate to get the win.”
WeGo (0-14-3, 0-5-1) showed again that it's a talented group who can hang with the best teams in the conference, but once again, just couldn't pull out the victory.
It remains officially winless on the season after forfeiting four wins because of an ineligible player.
“It was a great effort by all of the boys,” Quezada said. “We've had a really rough season.
“We start off always like that, and then we wake up second half, but it's always a little too late. It was good that we woke up in the end.”
Neuqua's Jake Loncar had the first chance of the game when he received the ball at the right side of the penalty area, turned and fired a shot over the goal.
The hosts continued to control the flow of play throughout the half, and finally in the 25th minute, senior Connor LeFevour settled a cross and found junior Ross, who drilled a shot into the upper netting to give his team a 1-0 lead.
A few minutes later, LeFevour found himself on the end of a cross from Loncar, and he put his shot off the post. The rebound bounced to Ross, whose shot was blocked by senior Jerry Medina.
WeGo had plenty of possession throughout the half, and most of its scoring opportunities came on long shots.
Quezada had a shot from about 30 yards early and Antonio Velazquez drilled a shot from similar distance later in the half.
The best West Chicago chance of the first half came when Oswaldo Estrada blasted a shot from 25 yards that forced a save from Neuqua goalkeeper Andrew Fadinelli.
Late in the half, Ortiz was taken down in the penalty area, and he placed the penalty kick in the right lower corner to give his team a 2-0 lead heading into the break.
“[The two goals] gave us confidence,” Ross said. “It was a good lead to give us some comfort at our backs.”
But West Chicago came out firing in the second half.
Less than two minutes in, a long free kick cross from Medina found junior Velazquez, whose header was saved by Fadinelli.
Five minutes later, Suarez collected the ball on the right side of the penalty area, took a few dribbles and tucked a shot inside the near post to make the score 2-1.
The chances kept coming for the visitors, and in the 13th minute, a corner kick from Estrada was deflected and found its way to Vicente Tirado, who had the ball with the goalkeeper out of position, but he couldn't find the frame.
In the 66th minute, Quezada nailed a shot from 20 yards out, which bounced off of the crossbar.
Finally, Quezada tied the game with just over six minutes remaining when he placed a volley from outside the penalty area into the lower corner.
“It was great to come back,” WeGo coach Jose Villa said. “We've been struggling to score and to be effective offensively. It was a great spark from us to come back after being down 2-0.
“I'm very proud of our boys for a full effort from everybody, coming back and getting on the scoreboard after a couple of weeks.”
But just a minute later, Loncar found Kyle Carson inside the penalty area, and he found Ross in front of the open goal for a tap-in to give Neuqua the lead for good.
“It felt good because lately we've been pushing to make sure we get those last few minutes, and make sure that we finish,” Ross said.
“We don't want to end off with any more ties, because at the beginning of the season, we know we had a few games where the other team came back, so we've been working on those final minutes to make sure we put the game away.”
Regardless of how it finishes in conference play, Neuqua knows that it needs to maintain greater consistency if it hopes to make a playoff run.
“We can't stand prosperity,” Begley said. “It's like we think we've done enough, and you've never done enough until it's over, so that's where we're at … We've done all we can in the conference.
“We have to focus now at the end of the year. We have not played well at the end of the year in regards to results. We've been one-and-done in the last two years, and we certainly have a goal to get further than that this year.”
For a youthful team that lost plenty of experience last year, West Chicago has been forced to take small victories as it moves toward the playoffs.
Though the season has been tough, WeGo has shown an ability to hang with quality teams, and Quezada hopes that's enough to prepare it for its regional opener against Oswego East.
“We've progressed a lot from the beginning of the season,” Quezada said. “A lot of seniors left last year, very key players, we kept progressing every game, getting used to each other. Hopefully we're prepared for Oswego East in the regionals.”