Eagles soccer advances to state title game

Columbia’s Sean Rickey advances the ball down the field during the Eagles’ regional championship victory over Freeburg. (John Spytek photo)

The Columbia High School soccer team is in uncharted territory. The Eagles scored three goals in the final 20 minutes to defeat Herscher on Friday following a scoreless first half. Now, for the first time in the history of the program, the Eagles will play for a state championship.

Entering the game, Columbia and Herscher appeared to be mirror images of each other. Both teams were known for their defense. The Eagles’ backline has been a strength all year, shutting down some of the most potent offenses in the area. The Tigers were just as intimidating, having posted shutouts in 12 of their past 15 games.

Additionally, both sides came in on a mission. Last fall, Columbia went 21-3 and appeared primed for a trip to state, only to lose to rival Gibault in the sectional semifinals. Herscher also fell victim to the Hawks in the state championship game. Hoping to dispel the demons of 2013, each team adopted the motto “Unfinished Business.”

But only one school would take the next step toward finishing business, and despite the striking resemblance on paper and in philosophy, the two sides looked very different on the field Friday evening in Normal, as Columbia controlled almost the entire game.

Despite playing against 30-mile-per-hour winds in the first half, the Eagles were able to possess the ball and work it into the Herscher goal box. But the Tigers defense, as it had been all season, was strong. Though letting CHS control the ball, Herscher did a nice job of pushing the Eagles to the outside, allowing them few good looks. When Columbia did get a shot on goal, the Tigers goalkeeper was there to make the save.

Columbia’s defense was equally solid, as freshman goalie Jon Kuebler and the Eagles defense quickly turned away the few opportunities Herscher was able to generate. The teams went into the half knotted at 0-0.

CHS came out firing in the second half. Playing with the wind and, more importantly, with confidence, the Eagles continued to pressure the Tigers and created more high quality opportunities. The Herscher keeper was busy all night, as Columbia rained shot after shot on goal. CHS was relentless on the attack, but just missed on several good chances.

As they have all season, the Eagles remained calm and continued to pound away. With 18 minutes remaining in the game, they were finally rewarded for their efforts. Senior Patrick McDermott dribbled into the box and battled through two defenders before firing a shot toward the goal. The ball deflected off a Herscher player and settled into the net, giving Columbia the 1-0 lead they had worked for all night.

But the Eagles weren’t done just yet. CHS continued to attack after the goal, and with 7 minutes left, Columbia got some insurance, as Sean Rickey’s flip throw-in was tipped into the net by the Tigers goalkeeper.

Three minutes later, Columbia removed any remaining doubt, as Matthew Roderick scored on a rebound to make it 3-0. Kuebler and the Eagles defense were able to relax as they cruised to the shutout victory — their fifth clean sheet this postseason.

Columbia will play (Elmhurst) Timothy Christian in Saturday’s Class 1A state championship game, which takes place at 5 p.m. at the Corn Crib in Normal. Timothy Christian defeated Harvard in penalty kicks following two overtimes to advance.

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