NORMAL — The Normal Community High School soccer team may have discovered its version of the St. Louis Cardinals' Rally Cat on Friday at the Normal West soccer field.
Only this time, the loose critter was of the canine variety.
Call it the P.K. Pooch.
As NCHS junior midfielder Josue Nsukami was readying to drill home what would be the game-winning goal on a penalty kick with 20:34 remaining in the first half, the dog rushed the field at the far end.
Showcasing a blend of good speed and deft moves, the pup was able to elude any would-be captors before finally heading back to the sidelines and surrendering to its apparent owner without a struggle.
The delay failed to faze Nsukami, who launched a rocket from inside the box and just out of the reach of Moline goalkeeper Arturo Zavala to give the Ironmen a 1-0 victory in the championship game of the Class 3A Normal West Regional.
"I was a little bit nervous, but I knew I would make it," Nsukami said. "I've been in this place before."
NCHS coach Matt Chapman also had the utmost confidence in Nsukami's ability to overcome the distraction and prevail in the one-on-one, penalty kick showdown with Zavala.
"You always wonder about something like that, if there's too much of a distraction," Chapman said. "But, when we were warming up today, approaching the game, we were very focused as a team.
"We talked about handling distractions and handling the things that we couldn't control and I was proud of my guys for doing a pretty good job of not being overly affected by the things they couldn't control."
The lone goal sends the 16-5-3 Ironmen into Tuesday's Rock Island Sectional semifinals against the winner of Saturday's Joliet Central Regional championship match between Rock Island and Joliet West.
Moline ended its season 11-4-6.
Just as the dog seemed to enjoy stretching its legs, NCHS would have enjoyed stretching its tenuous lead. A stout Moline defense prevented the Ironmen from doing so.
"That's been our strength the whole year, our back line and goalkeeping," said Moline coach Rick Sanchez. "We had to ride that. Unfortunately, we weren't able to create enough offensive opportunities until the the last 15 minutes of the game where we had some quality looks."
The NCHS defense was equally stingy in helping the Ironmen to their second straight postseason shutout.
"I'm really happy with our back line," Chapman said. "Brady Fletcher just holds down the fort back there next to Ethan Holland. And Josue and Kamoy Creary are really solid, solid defenders."
Goaltender Austin Woodside recorded the shutout with six saves, including a diving stop with 3:25 remaining.
Zavala was very good in the Moline net, also turning away six shots to keep the Maroons within striking distance.
Zavala and the Maroons' defense had the Ironmen bearing down on them to little avail for much of the contest.
"They possess the ball fairly well, but I don't think we gave up many quality offensive looks at all," Sanchez said.
"A goal of ours was to keep the ball as much as possible and I thought we did a pretty good job with that," said Chapman. "Our decision-making on what to do with the ball was really on point today and I also think team-wise, the guys looked out for each other and tried to help each other out as much as possible."
The game was hotly contested with the Moline coaching staff receiving a couple of yellow cards, including one in the sequence leading to Nsukami's penalty kick.
"Obviously we're all going to see it differently," Sanchez said. "That's part of the game. You have to work through it. It didn't go our way this time. They move on, unfortunately we go home."