NORMAL — As a Normal Community High School senior midfielder, Shelby Herrera, has been in many situations in her soccer career.
Few, however, were more momentous than her assist on Caelyn Steffens’ deciding goal in the Iron’s 3-2 victory over Minooka in a Class 3A NCHS Sectional semifinal on Tuesday.
“Honestly, I’ve never been put in a situation like that before,” said Herrera after her fifth assist of the season. “I love my coach for letting me play so much today.
“All I saw was Caelyn and about six other people on her. So I just thought, ‘she’s great with the ball, if I could just get it in the central area around her, I knew she’d be able to do something with it.’”
Steffens’ goal, her second of the game and team-leading 30th of the season, came with 21:31 left and doomed the Indians to their third sectional semifinal loss to NCHS in three years.
The Iron will take a 20-4-2 record into Friday’s 6 p.m. Sweet 16 game against Belleville West (15-5-3) at NCHS. After testing a foe with 20 shutouts, Minooka saw its season end at 12-6.
“She worked really hard to get it to that place and then when she served it, it was a perfect ball,” Steffens said. “I didn’t even have to work for it. It was right to my chest and I could volley it in.”
Scoring in the hard-fought contest opened when Minooka’s Brooke Brodzinski converted a penalty kick with 14:38 left in the first half. Grace Blair answered for NCHS with her eighth goal of the year just 2:07 later off a bouncing assist from Carmen Cornejo.
Scoring resumed with 37:54 left in the second half when Steffens, often orbited by three defenders, knocked in a penalty kick.
“I’m kind of used to those pressure situations,” she said. “I just had to concentrate and put it in.”
Minooka needed only 1:26 to tie it at 2-2 on a goal by Meredith Conant from 30 yards out.
“They gave us a really good fight and we gave them a good fight, obviously,” said Steffens, whose team outshot its guest, 13-6. “We knew a little bit about them from last year so we kind of knew which players were their good players.”
NCHS coach Matt Chapman, whose squad topped Minooka 3-1 last year and in a PK shootout the year before, felt his team’s performance lacked beauty except for a few sequences.
“That’s partially because of what they were doing,” he said. “They were really putting a lot of pressure on us. That team does not quit. They are fierce competitors.
“I think most of our scoring chances today came from heart and hustle. (Herrera’s assist) was a hustle play. She’s one of the most in-shape players on our team. She’s one of the hardest workers on our team. That was the moment where it pays off.”
Minooka coach Chris Brolley had hoped to say goodbye to eight seniors in a different way.
“Credit two good teams for playing as hard as they could,” he said. “It wasn’t without effort and without skill, without excitement. It was fun to be a part of. It’s hard to be on this end.”
Herrera and five fellow NCHS seniors hope to go on as long as possible.
“We’ve always been a team that plays with heart,” she said. “We always say before our games, ‘if we just play with heart, we know we’re going to do well.’”