EAST PEORIA — After winding its way through the ups and downs of a season with six losses and five draws, the University High School soccer team wasn't absolutely certain it would advance to the final weekend of the state playoffs.
After taking a wicked hit to the back of the leg in Friday night's rough and tumble state semifinal, the Pioneers' Nathan Clay wasn't absolutely certain he'd make it to Saturday's state title game.
Clay credited some help from above as well the U High training staff for whipping him back in to shape. His two first-half goals then helped U High to a 3-1 victory over Westchester St. Joseph and the Class 1A state title on a pleasant evening at EastSide Centre.
"I have to thank my Lord, Jesus. I couldn't have been out here without Him," Clay said. "I didn't think I'd be back out here, but by His grace, I'm here. It was really bad last night and I didn't think I'd be able to play. Working with the trainers last night and all this morning, I was ready to be able to go by game time."
U High's J.D. Kelley was also more than ready by game time. With an assist from Clay, Kelley put the Pioneers on the scoreboard first, punching home a goal with 12:35 remaining in the first half.
The tally provided a huge spark for U High after St. Joseph came out aggressively in the opening period.
"After that first one, we got a lot of confidence and were really knocking on the door and ended up getting three before halftime, which was huge for us," said U High coach Jeremy Stanton.
"It gave us some momentum," said Kelley of his 15th and perhaps biggest goal of the season. "We ended up scoring two more within 10 minutes of that goal, so it really helped the team build confidence and show that we're better than (St. Joseph)."
Clay capitalized on the momentum by scoring his 29th goal of the year with an assist from Matt Mier off a deflection a little over three minutes later.
He then added his team-high 30th tally to give the Pioneers a 3-0 halftime lead with just 1:06 remaining.
Showing himself no worse for the wear from Friday night's mishap, Clay outraced a St. Joseph defender and goalkeeper Carlos Gomez to a stray ball in front of the net and poked it in, in a somewhat unique fashion.
"We were going for the ball and I just happened to get a knee on it and got it in," Clay said.
From that point on, it was primarily up to the U High defense to nail down the school's 11th state title and the second of this fall, coming on the heels of the championship claimed by the boys' golf team earlier this month.
The defense met the challenge in resounding fashion, as it has throughout the postseason.
"We've had great defense throughout the playoffs, for seven straight games," Stanton said. "We knew we had a good defensive team. We just weren't consistent with it throughout the year. We started to get a little better at the end of the year and in the playoffs we took it to another level."
The Pioneers relinquished only three goals in the entire postseason, one of them by St. Joseph's Oscar Rodriguez with 7:50 remaining in the game to spoil the shutout.
Rodriguez' goal was a mere glitch in another stellar performance by goalkeeper Christian Lopez and the U High defensive backfield of Mier, Ryan Poland, Matt Moselle and Jason Lenz.
"Man, they've been huge for us," Stanton said. "They locked down defensively, they rotated well, they were pinching in when they should, they were doubling when they should. All the defensive rules that we talk about and stress to these guys, they carried it out over and over again throughout the playoffs."
St. Joseph (13-9) and U High tied with 12 shots apiece. Lopez turned in a highlight-reel worthy save midway through the second half, leaping for a St. Joseph shot and deflecting it over the crossbar to preserve the Pioneers' healthy advantage. It was one of his eight saves in the game.
U High successfully ended its title run at 17-6-5.
"We knew we had the capability," Stanton said. "Getting here wasn't easy. Obviously it takes finishing opportunities and some bounces have to go your way. We got those and were able to finish and lock down defensively.
"After (the) Intercity (tournament), we knew we could compete with the 2A and 3A schools, so we were battle tested. When you play that type of a schedule, you see everything, so it's a matter of carrying out the game plan and finishing it off."
Cornerstone 4th: Ben Mueth scored a hat trick to lead Waterloo Gibault to a 6-1 victory over Cornerstone Christian Academy in the third-place match.
Cornerstone's Moses Kabuswe netted his 46th goal of the year with an assist from Josiah Graham to pull the Cyclones into a 1-1 tie after Mueth had given Gibault an early lead. It was all Gibault after that.
"We would have liked for the scoreboard to show differently, but there's nothing to hang our heads about," said Cornerstone coach Jeremy Knapp, who saw the Cyclones' splendid season end at 22-5-1. "We fought hard, but they were the better team today, no doubt about it."
Gibault outshot the Cyclones 26-12 and held a 2-1 halftime lead.
"I was hoping we'd get a little more momentum built there (after Kabuswe's goal) and we did have some chances and opportunities," Knapp said. "We just couldn't quite capitalize and they just kept coming at us and coming at us and finally broke us down."
Cornerstone, with fewer than 100 students, was easily the smallest school in the final four.
"We didn't want to come here just to do a victory lap," Knapp said. "We wanted to come here and compete. The scoreline didn't look great, but we competed very hard."
The Cyclones will be recognized at a reception at the school at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.