NORMAL — With his team's defense delivering another unblemished performance, Nick Leming gave Normal Community the only tally it needed Tuesday.
"Postseason, we'll take it any way we can get it," said Leming, whose conversion of a Jared Nutt corner kick lifted the Ironmen to a 1-0 win over East Moline in the first semifinal of the Class 3A Normal West boys soccer regional.
"Besides talent and skill, we really played with our hearts out there and got it done."
The Ironmen, who played rival Normal West to a scoreless draw in their regular-season finale, improved to 15-5-3 and advanced to Friday's 5 p.m. title match.
But they won't get a rematch with the host Wildcats, who had a go-ahead goal disallowed in the second half before Moline (11-3-6) got a goal from Manny Raya with six minutes left to claim a 1-0 win in the contentious second semifinal.
"We played a very good game, we really did," said West coach Val Walker, whose team closed at 14-8-2. "This is probably one of the best games we played all year in terms of sticking to a plan and executing. Young guys rose to the occasion and played their hearts out. The reality of it is we were a little bit unfortunate tonight."
NCHS played most of the scoreless first half on the Panthers' side of the field but had a hard time solving Brandon Moreno, who finished with 13 saves for East Moline (4-12-2).
"We kept trying to force it and then we just didnt' finish well and their goalkeeper was fantastic," said Ironmen coach Matt Chapman. "That guy made a ton of plays and really kept them in it, for sure."
Leming finally got one past Moreno just less than 10 minutes after intermission by knocking home Nutt's corner from the left side.
"Great ball in by Jared Nutt and it just came right to me. Easy finish," explained Leming.
"Leming just got up in the air and made a play," said Chapman. "Jared Nutt played a perfect ball. It was right where it needed to be and Nick just got up there and put it in."
NCHS again relied on its stout defense anchored by Brady Fletcher, Ethan Holland, Kamoy Creary and Josue Nsukami. The unit made it so keeper Austin Woodside needed just one save for the shutout.
"We have a good group of guys and they play together as a unit really well," said Leming. "It's a solid back line and they've done a fantastic job the whole season. Austin Woodside is a phenomenal keeper."
Without leading scorers Jordan Walker and Parker Theobald sidelined for multiple previous yellow card violations, the Wildcats had to make adjustments that saw McCade Brown in the middle of the forward line.
Much like NCHS, West dictated the tempo in a scoreless opening 40 minutes, only to be stymied by Maroons keeper Arturo Zavala, who made three crucial stops in the opening seven minutes and finished with 13 saves.
"Their big target guy (Brown) gave us a lot of trouble up top," said Moline coach Rick Sanchez. "We know teams are going to get chances and it's a matter of being focused and today (Zavala) was. He made a lot of nice saves to keep us in the game."
West appeared to take the lead when Brown's header off a corner kick beat Zavala with 22:48 remaining. But after officials conferred, the score was waved off, apparently for interference.
"If the goalie has the ball in his possession and then you interfere with him, then it's a foul," said Coach Walker, whose team fought through an 8-1 disparity of fouls in the first half. "But nobody had the ball there. It was a 50-50 ball, my guy went up and won the ball and put it in the back of the net."
Neither side was pleased with the officiating after a stoppage with 11 minutes to play, when a whistle stopped the action near midfield and West was awarded a free kick from atop the arc.
"The AR (assistant referee) on our side had his flag up for an offsides," said Sanchez. "He let the play go through and our goalkeeper picked up the ball and threw it out on the quick outlet. Thirty seconds later, the play is stopped and he summons for a set piece."
However, the Wildcats thought they would be getting a penalty kick for a foul against Brown.
"The infraction happened in the box, so I don't know why the ball was spotted up at the top of the arc," said Walker. "That's another good question. But I have no idea why the ball was spotted out there."
Raya scored his goal unassisted after it caromed off a Wildcats defender.
"It's an odd play, a ricochet off one of my guys that dropped in a good spot for them," said Walker. "A guy anticipated it well and cleaned it up."
Walker felt his team played good enough to win despite being shorthanded.
"All week long we said 'we have enough here.' We put together a good system that I thought would work well without those guys and it worked," he said. "We generated a lot of chances.
"But we came up a bit short and unfortunate on that end."