Sometimes a tough loss can teach a team more about itself than any big win, and that was absolutely the case as the Hillsboro boys soccer team lost a heartbreaker in overtime last Tuesday at Gillespie.
The Toppers, undefeated in the conference to that point, were unable to get any rhythm against the Miners and the field conditions, coupled with timely defense on the part of Gillespie, doomed Hillsboro from accomplishing their goal of staying undefeated in South Central Conference play and winning the conference title outright.
The loss also forced the Toppers into a must win game Friday, April 9, as the Carlinville Cavaliers traveled to the Hillsboro Sports Complex and brought with them an undefeated SCC slate.
If Hillsboro could even have a share of the top spot, they would have to beat the Cavies first and foremost and then win against Pana this week.
With all of that on the table and still stinging from the Gillespie hiccup, the Toppers showed who they really were in a big way, scoring two first half goals, turning away two first half penalty shots, and adding a third goal in the second half to come away with the big 3-0 win.
With a big build up going in and an even bigger crowd in attendance, things got going immediately on offense as Hillsboro took the opening kick and drove into the Carlinville zone.
Showing great patience and moving the defense up to the midline, the Toppers were able to hold possession early and manufacture a corner kick just 90 seconds into the tilt.
The Cavies were able to corral the corner and clear the zone though and bring it up the other way.
With Carlinville now on the attack and looking for junior Treiton Park, their weapon on offense, the Toppers adjusted their defensive scheme and looked to isolate Park in hopes of cutting off the flow.
To do this, Hillsboro called upon junior Matt Page, who has come out of nowhere this season providing a huge spark on both sides of the ball. Page was spot on as he marked Park and kept him isolated, which slowed the Carlinville attack and allowed the Toppers to force the Cavaliers to look for other ways to move the ball.
Carlinville would adjust though, as junior mid Levi Yudinski took over the heavy lifting for the Cavaliers and found himself with a great chance at the 5:30 mark of the half.
Yudinski would use his speed to get a bit of a breakaway but he’d push his shot wide.
At the 9:17 mark of the first, disaster would nearly strike the Toppers as a handball deep in the Hillsboro defensive end resulted in a free kick just outside the 18 yard box. The Cavaliers would line up for the kick and place a strong shot on frame that Topper keeper Shaw Riggs would make the initial save on, but the rebound would roll out in front and make for another Carlinville attempt.
This time, on the ensuing scrum, Hillsboro would be whistled for a foul in the box, awarding the Cavaliers a penalty shot. Yudinski was called upon for the attempt and struck the ball right on point, but Riggs would make an absolutely spectacular diving save to keep the ball out of the net and the Toppers were able to clear it up and out of play.
With the newly found spark and the crowd on its feet, the orange and black turned good fortune at one end to even better fortune at the other end.
They too would be awarded a free kick deep in the Carlinville zone and junior Ethan Lentz was called on to take the shot. Lentz’s shot was right on and nailed the crossbar, which cause the ball to ricochet down in front of the Cavie net and fellow junior Ayden Brewer crashed the box and buried the put back giving the Toppers the 1-0 lead.
With 17:43 left in the half, the Cavaliers would keep knocking as Park broke loose up the left side, but once again Page was there with a terrific two-footed tackle to stymie the run and end it before it started.
Penalty kicks are rare enough in soccer but, with just over 16 minutes left in the half, Hillsboro would be whistled again for an infraction in the box this time when Park got tangled with the feet of freshman backliner Deklan Riggs. This time Park would take the attempt and hit it off the left post and, once again, Hillsboro would dodge a bullet and send it back up the other way.
With 15:30 left in the half, the Toppers would amaze their fans once again, this time off the foot of Lentz.
After being fouled just inside the midfield line, Lentz would be awarded a free kick for his efforts. He’d make the most of it as he placed a perfect loft ball that floated right over the head of Carlinville net minder Zaiden Reese and into the back of the net putting the Toppers up 2-0. Each team would exchange chances down the stretch but never come closer than that and the score stayed 2-0 at the break.
When play resumed in the second, Hillsboro would keep knocking with a flurry of activity in front of the Carlinville net and would be rewarded once again for their hard work as sophomore Adison Pollard took a perfect lead pass from Lentz and opened his hips to allow the ball to play through before taking off.
The move allowed him to get two steps ahead of the play immediately and from there he was off to the races, beating Reese to the low right side to put the Toppers up by three.
From there, the Toppers would get help from everyone on defense with the younger Riggs making stops in front of the box and helping his older brother between the pipes clear others. As well, freshman Griffen Hughes would make a save of his own as a ball trickled loose in front and he was able to make a sliding play on the roller and keep it clear.
From there it would become the Shaw Riggs show as the senior made stellar save after stellar save to preserve the shutout. Hillsboro would work to keep Park isolated and the field spread until time ran out to pick up the 3-1 win.
“The crowd was awesome today and we definitely showed them how much fun and how entertaining our team can be,” Topper coach Jason Burke said. “Hopefully we can continue to have our fans come out like this because it really charges up our guys and several of them remarked how much it plays a part in their energy and how much fun it is to play in front of a crowd. Hats off to our guys for responding to our loss at Gillespie. We needed this one badly to stay within a game of the SCC and we took care of business. So incredibly proud of these guys. This is the team we knew we were and it’s great to finally be able to showcase it.”
With the win, the Toppers improve to 9-3-1 on the season and 5-1 in SCC play. They host Beardstown this afternoon before traveling to Pana Tuesday, April 13, for their final conference game of the season. With a win, the Toppers will share a portion of the SCC title, making them back-to-back SCC champions.
April 9 at Hillsboro
Hillsboro 0 0 - 0
Carlinville 2 1 - 3
Hillsboro Scoring: Ayden Brewer Ethan Lentz, Adison Pollard. Goalkeepers: Hillsboro - Shaw Riggs (16 saves); Carlinville - Zaiden Reese (9 saves).
Records: Hillsboro (9-3-1, 5-1); Carlinville (8-3, 6-1).