by Riley Hicks
In Wednesday night’s quarterfinal soccer matchup between the Whitewater Wildcats and the Rome Wolves, the Wildcats got to make a dream a reality by advancing to the Final Four. The past few seasons the Whitewater boys have progressively gotten better under head coach John Bernard, and all their hard work and dedication has finally paid off with the win over Rome to continue their road towards a state championship. The Wildcats had to battle back twice and survive a shootout, but they eventually pulled out the 3-2 victory over the Wolves.
“These boys have bought into the system since day one,” said Bernard. “Every time we think they can’t reach another level, they step up and they’re there. Every single boy will die on this field every day to make sure we advance.”
Whitewater opened the game aggressively on offensive in the first 10 minutes. They had two big chances to convert a goal off throw-ins from Jordan Outhavong that led to headers but they were just over the bar each time.
Rome would be the first to get on the board in the 14th minute. With most of Whitewater’s players on the offensive side of the field, the Wolves capitalized and scored, as Rahdrig Turner found Eduardo Zavala streaking down the sideline and crossing over the defense for the shot and goal off the keeper’s hands to go up 1-0. The Wolves almost extended the lead just a few minutes later on a strong throw-in that found a Rome forward, but Wildcat keeper Lance Ibarra snagged the ball out of the air.
“Rome played an amazing game tonight,” said Bernard. “When we were looking at Rome, we were playing ourselves. Rome’s strengths are our strengths. The things that make them a great team make us a great team.”
With the first half winding down, the Wildcats got back on the aggressive attack offensively and created quite a few opportunities on goal. The best chance at goal came with 6:40 left in the half, when Nicholas Smiech flicked the ball off his head after a penalty but had the ball go left of the net. Whitewater would not convert a goal in the first half but the momentum they created late offensively carried into the second half.
The entire night the Wildcats were almost successful in scoring a goal off a thrown-in and were just off target a bit each time, until early in the second half. In the 46th minute, Outhavong heaved the ball straight towards the net and found the head of Brennen Schmitt for the score to tie the game at 1-1.
Unfortunately for Whitewater, the deadlock would not last long. In the 47th minute, a strong attack from Rome pulled out the goalie for a wide-open shot for Turner to put the ball into the back of the net to put his Wolves back up 2-1.
As the second half quickly wound to a close, the Wildcats had to quickly go on the attack. The strong push from Whitewater kept their defense vulnerable, opening the door for Rome to put the game away, but Blanchard made several miraculous saves to keep his team alive.
In a last-ditch effort to tie the game with seven minutes left, the Wildcats crowded the box and Rome was caught for a handball, setting up a crucial penalty kick. Ty Marshall composed himself and drilled a shot just under the goalkeeper to give his team a 2-2 tie.
During the 15-minute overtime period, both Whitewater and Rome put together some great shots, but each were unsuccessful, sending the game to PKs to decide who advanced to the final four.
In the shootout, both sides made switches at goalkeeper with Outhavong for Whitewater and Ernesto Loza subbing in for Rome.
“Jordan is a very versatile player,” Bernard said. “He is very confident. He’s just willing to stand up and say, ‘Put it on me coach. I’ll put the team on my shoulders.’”
On the first three attempts, Whitewater converted with Marshall, Brennen Schmitt, and Smiech scoring. It was the same result for Rome. When it came to the fourth attempt, Ethan Barton answered for the Wildcats, but Alex Cornejo saw his shot blocked with a diving save from Outhavong. With Whitewater just needing one to goal to win the game, they sent John Martin to the line, and he buried the ball into the net to give his team the victory.
Whitewater now turns their attention to the McIntosh Chiefs, who they will face in the Final Four on Tuesday night. When they county foes met in the regular season, the Chiefs handed the Wildcats a devasting defeat, but if you ask Bernard, he believes his team is not the same team the Chiefs saw before.
“McIntosh is a very good team, and they took it to us in the first game,” said Bernard. “We feel we got a lot better since then and we are ready. The Whitewater team that took the field against McIntosh on March 15th is not the Whitewater that will take the field on May 14th.”
The quarterfinals were also fruitful for two other local squads.
Starr’s Mill’s championship dreams are still alive with a 2-0 road win over Cross Keys. They return home on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. to host Johnson (Gainesville) in the Final Four.
McIntosh kept battling, shaking off a fierce challenge on the road against the Carrollton Trojans. Trailing 1-0 early, the Chiefs equaled it on a Mason Harris strike. Bailey Lopez put them ahead one minute into the second half, but Carrollton scored 30 seconds later. With 10 minutes left in the match, Baba Agbaje scored to put McIntosh in front for good, 3-2. The Chiefs return home for the Final Four where they will host Whitewater Tuesday at 8 p.m.
Fayette County reestablished themselves on the scene with their best season in quite some time. Their campaign ends in a 2-1 loss to defending champion Johnson (Gainesville), but a quarterfinal run is something to be proud of, and it represents the deepest they’ve gone in the playoffs since 1999 when they were state runner-up.
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