The Hillsboro boys soccer team went into Saturday’s regional championship with 57 goals in 22 games. On the other side of the ball, was Newton’s Carder Reich, who also had 57 goals, in 21 games for the 18-3 Eagles.
“We knew we had to watch Reich all the time,” Hillsboro Coach Jason Burke said of the junior forward. “We were trying to diminish any of the over the top stuff that he was going to get. We knew if he got the ball, he wasn’t going to give it back, so we wanted to keep track of him all the time.”
For the better part of 80 minutes, the Hillsboro defense acted as a second shadow to Reich, allowing him very few opportunities to get a clean look at the goal. The defensive tenacity paid off for the Toppers, who picked up a first half penalty goal to win their fourth regional championship in the program’s history by a 1-0 margin.
“It killed me that Isaiah and Elijah (Atkins) and those guys didn’t get one. Shaw deserved a shot last year. I’m forgetting other people, but for these seniors to have played together for as long as they have and finally get one, is great,” said Burke, who has seven seniors on this year’s team. “That’s what I was most nervous about. I would have been sick if they wouldn’t have won.”
Despite Newton’s impressive record and Reich’s scoring prowess, the Toppers controlled the game from almost the opening whistle.
Gage Reynolds tested Hillsboro keeper Mitchell Lowe early on with a free kick from 25 yards out, but Lowe deflected the rocket from deep and the Hillsboro defense cleared out the ensuing corner kick.
That was nearly it for the Eagles, with the exception of a hit cross bar on a free kick midway through the half, as every single shot or drive to the goal seemed to have a Topper foot attached to it to redirect it the other way.
On the other end of the field, Hillsboro put chance after chance on goal, with Adison Pollard, Will Christian and Gavin Matoush leading the blitz. With 25:26 left to play in the half, a ball over the top went bouncing toward the edge of the box, with Pollard in hot pursuit. The Topper junior would get to the ball just before the Newton keeper, who shot a leg out to slow Pollard’s progress.
The ensuing collision brought Pollard to the ground and a whistle from the center official, who awarded Hillsboro a penalty kick. Pollard got the call after earning the foul and calmly converted the goal to give his team a 1-0 lead.
“All of our kids are grinders. We just keep trying to manufacture things,” Burke said of Pollard’s hustle on the play. “We try to preach, if it’s not going to be us, it’s going to be someone else.”
Pollard nearly got another chance for a PK a few minutes later as he was brought down in the box, but the play was deemed clean and the score stood at 1-0 at halftime.
In the second half, Newton tried to set the tone early, sending a ball over the top to Reich, who collided with Lowe in pursuit. The play did nothing to shake the sophomore keeper, who calmly turned away one of the few chances the Eagles had.
With the exception of a few bids for success on offense from both teams, the majority of the game was played in the middle of the field, with Hillsboro trying to get something going while lead facilitator Ethan Lentz was on the bench with an injury suffered late in the first half.
“Ethan is that security blanket. When he has the ball, they know it’s going to be alright and when we lost him, I think they started to panic a little bit,” Burke said. “But the defense stepped up and we were alright.”
More than alright. As the game progressed, the more frustrated Newton became at their inability to get the equalizer. Despite some physical play, the defense held, with Matt Page, Chase Saathoff, Ayden Brewer, Deklan Riggs and Devin Speiser carrying the load.
“The defense has been us all year. We originally thought we’d have to score five goals a game to do anything before we knew who would be our goalie,” Burke said. “I think Mitchell, being a rookie goalie, has had a lot of pressure taken off of him by Deklan and Devin and the other guys. Devin is our heart and soul. Internally, he’s really fired up, but outside you can never tell. He’s just that calming influence.”
That calm evaporated as the final horn sounded as the Toppers celebrated their first regional title since 2015.
With the win, they move on to face Sacred Heart-Griffin, the Springfield Catholic school that has more state trophies (5) than the Toppers have regional crowns. The Cyclones beat Riverton for their regional title, improving to 14-7-1 against a schedule littered with Class 2A schools.
“A down SHG is still everyone else’s state champion,” Burke said in regards to Wednesday’s opposition. “If we can play SHG tight and just be there, you never know.”
Game time is at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 20, at Carlinville High School, with the winner moving on to play either Carlinville or Beardstown for the sectional title on Saturday, Oct. 23, at 3 p.m.
October 16 at Altamont
Class 1A Regional Championship
Hillsboro 1 0 - 1
Newton 0 0 - 0
Scoring: Hillsboro - Adison Pollard (penalty kick).
Record: Hillsboro (14-6-2); Newton (18-4).
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