Boys Soccer at the WIAA State Tournament
A near perfect season ended imperfectly for the University School boys’ soccer team. The Wildcats headed into the Semifinals of the WIAA Division 3 State Tournament with an undefeated record of 11-0. Unfortunately, they left the game with a record of 11-1. USM lost the state semifinal to the Saint Lawrence Seminary Hilltoppers, 2-4, and ended the season as a result.
“Congratulations to St. Lawrence Seminary,” said Jock Mutschler, USM’s head coach. “This was their first time making it to the state tournament. Conversely, this was our fourth tournament appearance in nine years.”
It was a wild game played on Saturday, November 7th at Kewaskum High School. It had swings of momentum and tension throughout. The two teams demonstrated that they both deserved to be in the state tournament. There was good passing, good goal scoring, and good goaltending. Perhaps the play of the game came in the 77th minute when Max Gambino, St. Lawrence Seminary’s senior goalie, dove to stop a penalty kick by USM senior Donovan Jones to preserve the Hilltoppers’ one-goal lead.
In the game, the official scorekeepers credited Gambino with 11 saves. His counterpart, USM junior keeper, Ali Mortada, did not make an official save, but his positioning and approach frequently frustrated the Hilltopper forwards.
The Wildcats began the contest with a strong wind at their backs, and for a good portion of the first half, they held sway. They dominated possession, keeping the ball in the Hilltoppers side of the field for much of the half. But Gambino rose to the occasion, making several diving stops and charging out to stop two breakaways. The crossbar also prevented another golden USM opportunity.
Mutschler said, “The boys decided they would come out in a super aggressive fashion and take advantage of what we presumed would be St. Lawrence's star-struck mentality. We figured we had ten to fifteen minutes in which to take advantage of the Hilltoppers before they would settle in. This was largely how the first half played out, save a defensive breakdown by us late in the first half.”
USM finally solved Gambino and opened the game’s scoring midway through the half. Junior Cody Adams ran the ball down the left sideline and centered it. Jones was there. He captured the ball in the middle of the Hilltoppers’ 18-yard box. He then swiftly lasered a shot past Gambino at 23:32.
Although USM had the ball most of the half and outshot the Hilltoppers, 15-2, St. Lawrence Seminary did manage to tie the score late in the period. Sophomore Benisio Gambino, Max Gambino’s younger brother, was able to tap the ball past a USM defender and race in on a breakaway. As Mortada moved out to meet him, Gambino slotted a ground ball past the oncoming goalkeeper. The ball bounded just inside the post at 38:51.
“Obviously, the second half was wild and woolly,” said Mutschler. “Probably very exciting for the casual fan. I was impressed by the boys' inspired efforts to come back each time St. Lawrence Seminary scored a goal. The boys responded magnificently. The boys were determined and fought to the end. Were it not for some extraordinary goalkeeping from St. Lawrence Seminary, we would be playing for the state championship.”
As the second forty-five minutes commenced, the action picked up right away. Each team took 11 shots in the half as the Hilltoppers increased their offensive pressure to match the Wildcats. As a consequence, the Hilltoppers took the lead early in the period.
On the play, the Hilltoppers won a battle for the ball in midfield. The ball scooted ahead to junior David Meza. Meza took a touch, then slivered a pass through to senior Grant Bargender. Bargender raced in on a break and boomed a left-footer into the USM net at 47:35.
The Wildcats responded quickly. They re-tied the score exactly two minutes later. Senior defender Bradshaw Morel pushed up to intercept a Hilltopper clearing attempt on the right side. Morel took off like a race car and sped down the sideline. He outfoxed a defender then cut along the goal line. Seeing teammates in front of the goal, Morel centered the ball. It went to the foot of his classmate, Ben Lenikman. Lenikman forthrightly fired a shot into the net.
St. Lawrence Seminary scored what would become the winning goal at 77:30. Senior defender Jovan Hernandez began the play by taking a throw in from the right side. His throw went to senior Isidro Vargas who chipped it into the air over a USM defender to Bergender. Bergender collected it, turned, then gunned a shot from 25 feet out. The ball jetted past the diving Mortada for the goal.
Just seconds later USM had a golden chance to tie it again when a Hilltopper pulled USM senior forward Noah Eghbali to the ground in the St. Lawrence Seminary penalty area. Max Gambino’s diving save of the penalty kick foiled the Wildcats’ attempt.
The Wildcats played with urgency for the game’s final minutes. Gambino stopped another breakaway in the 83rd minute, and the Hilltoppers packed it in on defense, making long clears as soon as they gained control.
One of those clears resulted in the game’s final goal. As the ball sailed toward the sideline, Mortada rushed way out to meet it, hoping to send it back upfield to his teammates. He kicked it, but the ball bounced across the left sideline. Before Mortada could retreat to the goal, St. Lawrence Seminary senior Noah Britto grabbed the ball. He swiftly threw it into Vargas. Vargas took a step then fired it into the vacated net at 89:37, sealing the victory, and sending the Hilltoppers into the state finals with an 11-1 record, the same record as the Wildcats’ final mark.
After the loss, Mutschler reflected, “I am happy to say that the boys were able to enjoy some time together after the game. This probably started the healing process. The boys invested quite a bit into this season. The seniors have invested multiple years in the program. It hurts to work hard and to not achieve all of your goals. However, as we say, the ultimate goal of the soccer program is to have a positive soccer experience. This doesn't necessarily mean winning the state championship. It can mean initiating and strengthening friendships, making bonds, learning new things, and experimenting with new concepts."