CHAMPAIGN — Without question, the Central Catholic boys soccer team encountered a mighty obstacle Wednesday in the semifinals of the Class 1A Urbana University High Sectional.
Top-seeded St. Thomas More had not allowed a goal in more than a month, had won 22 of its 25 previous matches and boasted a prolific goal scorer in Joe Hoffman.
That obstacle became even more indomitable when the Sabers scored in the first two minutes. Yet, the Saints never cowered and instead pushed their opponents to the limit before dropping a valiant 2-1 decision on the University of Illinois turf fields.
"Our boys did not quit, not from the first second through the 80th minute," said Saints coach Reza Ghasemi. "They believed in themselves and kept fighting and fighting."
Central got seven saves from J-C Micklich and a goal from Noah Bevilacqua off an assist from Mael Kazigwa in finishing its season at 18-8.
"I seriously was very impressed with our boys. This is a team that last year was 2-19 and turned it around and we were fighting in a sectional semifinal," said Ghasemi. "I couldn't be any more proud of our boys, the way they played, the way they executed and the way they stayed in the game all the way until the end."
St. Thomas More, which had a 10-match shutout streak snapped, improved to 23-2-1 and advanced to Friday's championship match against host Uni-High (20-2-2), a 4-2 winner over Decatur St. Teresa in the simultaneous semifinal on the adjacent field.
"They're a talented team and they're very well coached," Sabers coach James Johnson said of the Saints. "I have a ton of respect for (Ghasemi). They gave us everything they had.
"They're real sound defensively; they've got a big super back (Zachary Tomerlin) back there that just eats stuff up in the middle."
While the Saints prevented the senior Hoffman from scoring his 44th goal, his sophomore brother JP Hoffman stung Central early in the match after a scramble in front of Micklich. But instead of folding, the Saints battled and went into halftime still within one.
"It was just a mistake and we paid for it," said Ghasemi. "The key is I think the boys believed in themselves. They had confidence they could do better and could come back."
As the defensive battle continued deep into the second half, Central nearly struck for an equalizer with 14 minutes remaining after Kazigwa drew a foul just above the box.
But Bevilacqua's strong direct kick struck the crossbar, and St. Thomas goalie Jake Sellett denied a second chance opportunity.
"The luck wasn't with us. The direct kick should've been in but it hit the crossbar barely. A half an inch, it would've been in," said Ghasemi.
Central's luck soured again six minutes later when a foul allowed Joe Sellett, who assisted the first goal, to convert a penalty kick that widened the Sabers' lead to 2-0.
Still, the Saints gave themselves a chance after Bevilacqua buried a well-played crossing pass from Kazigwa with 4:27 to go.
"I kept emphasizing to our boys to keep playing, keep passing and keep creating opportunities," said Ghasemi. "That eventually paid off for us.
"The second half was pretty much us controlling the game. One counter attack we made a mistake and gave up a penalty. Otherwise it could've been 1-1 and going into overtime."
While Johnson felt the match basically came down to "a couple bounces" and "could've gone either way," Ghasemi lamented what might have been.
"It is what it is. We can't change things," he said. "We've just got to look into building the program for the future. It is a game and unfortunately somebody comes out a winner and somebody goes home. We were unfortunate it was us today."