On a frigid Wednesday evening in Bonne Terre, the 2019 edition of the Hillsboro boys soccer team reached heights no other team had reached since the program’s inception in 1997. With a 3-1 victory over North County, the Hawks advanced past the sectional round of the state playoffs for the first time, and now find themselves one game away from the Final Four.
“It’s the farthest the boys have been,” a proud head coach Chris Schacht declared. “Since the beginning of the postseason, we talk about going 1-0 each match. They love the game for what it is, and have been focused each time out.”
And there was lot going on that could have distracted the team. The match was postponed a day because of weather. Upon arrival Wednesday, the temperature was hovering around 35 degrees with patches of snow and ice on the playing surface. Then there was the rowdy crowd supporting the home team. “The conditions were a little tough with the cold and residual ice on the field, but the boys didn’t let it bother them, and went out and did what they’ve been doing all season,” Schacht pointed out.
It was clear from the game’s onset that the Hawks were going to dictate the flow of the game. Given a lot of room at midfield, Mitchel Hickson and Sergio Cruz had a lot of room to generate chances offensively. “I wasn’t surprised (with the lack of pressure) because we watched film and saw what they would do,” Hickson explained. “So Serg and I knew we would have time on the ball to work it around. The whole team played excellent, and that takes pressure off me too.”
Almost seven minutes into the match, the Hawks had their first strong chance at a goal when Mark Moore rifled a free kick that seemed to be headed to the back of the net, but North County’s goalie deflected it at the last moment to keep the match scoreless. Hillsboro goalie AJ Krasnesky wasn’t tested much in the first half, but he came up with a big save close to 16 minutes in.
The Hawks would get the first marker of the match 26:59 into the first half off a corner kick. Defender Andrew Bridges notched just his second goal of the season on a header. “I saw the ball coming in as Gavin Wokurka played an excellent corner,” Bridges recalled. “I saw someone go up for it and miss, and it was right on my head. All I had to do was flick it toward the goal, and once I knew it was in, I went back and celebrated with the lads. It was great.”
As the Hawks had already established the tempo of the match, they put more pressure on the Raiders, and an inadvertent hand penalty gave the Hawks a penalty kick at the 38:41 mark of the first. Hickson surveyed his situation, and then cooly placed the ball in the upper left hand corner of the goal, giving his team a 2-0 advantage right before the half. It was his tenth goal of the season.
To be honest, that two goal lead looked huge as the first half wound down. It seemed it would take a monumental push by North County to overcome that deficit. But with just six seconds to go in the half, a loose ball in the box was captured by a Raider and buried into the back of the net. The home team had pulled to within one goal, and took some momentum into the break knowing it would just take one opportunity to tie the match.
“When we spoke at the half, it was stressed that we were in complete control and no adjustments were needed at that time,” Coach Schacht noted. “They seemed to already realize it, and looked to be unfazed and locked in.” Moore agreed. “We knew we had the better of the play, so that goal really didn’t affect us.”
And while the Raiders came out with renewed energy and hope, the Hawks repelled any pressure North County tried to offer. In fact, Moore just missed a great chance on the right side 3:30 into the second half. North County was often frustrated by the back line work of Bridges, Wokurka, and Kyle Warren, and Hickson and Cruz continued to bottle up the middle of the field, just waiting for an opening to develop.
There was a Raiders free kick at the 50 minute mark that generated a scoring chance, but the ball was cleared away after being misplayed by the Hawks. Hillsboro’s Dylan Mooney had a chance on the other end before being thwarted by the Raiders’ goalie. North County had a decent look at the net in the 63rd minute, but they weren’t able to finish.
There was about a four minute stretch where the Hawks seemed a little frazzled, as the cold made it difficult to breathe, and the pace of play got more desperate on the Raiders’ end. Goalie Krasnesky actually told his squad to relax after gobbling up a loose ball in the 66th minute.
Leave it to the senior Moore to take matters into his own hands. But this time it wouldn’t be by scoring his 35th goal of the season. Instead, he would pick up his 13th assist in what was one of the prettier plays this season. “Mark drew three defenders on that play and did something mature players do,” Coach Schacht commented. “He dished to Colton Leonard who then killed the game with that composed finish.” Moore’s pass was a give-and-go backward heel tap to Leonard who sped towards the goal and delivered a no-doubter that took the wind out of the sails of the Raiders and their faithful with 11:32 to go in the match.
“Initially, when I received the ball, I thought I was offside, but after not hearing a whistle I had the thought I was going to put the ball in the back of the net,” Leonard pointed out. “I pushed through, and that’s what I did.” Leonard’s goal was his tenth, giving Hillsboro three players with double digit goals this season.
The play highlighted the connection the senior and sophomore possess. “Mark and I have been practicing exchanges like those all year,” Leonard confessed. “We have really built up our chemistry this year. It is great to see all the hard work paying off.” Schacht admits that he knew there was something clicking there before the season even started. “We saw that chemistry build with those two during the summer, and make it a point to keep them together during training as much as possible.”
The Raiders would desperately try to push to get back into the match, but the Hawks would have nothing of it. As the clock finally showed no time left, Hillsboro wasn’t bashful in celebrating, knowing they had done something no other Hawks team had done.
This game was in such stark contrast to the first meeting between the two squads, a 5-1 North County victory on October 17. “We jumped to an early lead last time,” Coach Schacht said. “Then we gave up two bad goals due to communication issues. Our guys didn’t play with the best composure after that, and we simply learned from it. The boys played with composure and focus tonight, and in the end, reaped the rewards.” Warren said the magnitude of the game was a factor as well. “It’s a difference atmosphere, a bigger game,” he said. “We all have been ready to play the past two days and put the game earlier behind us.”
So now the 19-5-1 Hawks await their next opponent for Saturday’s match at home. Webster Groves and Ladue play tonight at 6 p.m. The winner will travel to Hillsboro on Saturday to determine one Final Four participant in Class 3. The time of the match has not been determined as of this time.