BERWYN -- Energetic, unflappable, confident — call Morton goalkeeper Miguel Jimenez any of these, but be sure to call on him to stand between the pipes for a shootout if the choice presents itself.
Even if he is just a freshman coming in cold off the bench, with a Class 3A regional title on the line.
After a scoreless draw through regulation and two overtime periods. Coach Jim Bageanis and Jimenez defied conventional wisdom. In his second month of high school, the substitute keeper stopped two Riverside-Brookfield shootout attempts to set up teammate Enrique Ayala, who buried his effort to give Morton its 22nd regional title with a 4-2 shootout win.
Morton coach Jim Bageanis recently brought Jimenez up to the varsity for the postseason stretch.
“We’ve been working on PKs for the last couple of weeks, and he’s been working with our goalie coaches,” Bageanis said. “And as we were practicing our PKs, he just kept having the better end of it,”
Jimenez went into the shootout unruffled by the weight of the moment.
“I wasn’t feeling nervous at all,” Jimenez said. “I had a hundred percent confidence in my team. And when I saved the first one, everything changed and I had even more confidence.”
There’s likely no better scene in high school sports than a team’s reaction in the immediate aftermath of winning a state playoff game. After Ayala booted the game-winner, Morton’s bench emptied onto the field in a joyous frenzy, running Ayala and Jimenez down in front of the stands and mobbing the two of them.
“I liked that we didn’t quit, and we kept our composure,” Bageanis said. “The effort was there. They were supporting each other, no bickering out there. Our bench was into the game — it was a total team effort. Everyone that was out there contributed, and the guys that weren’t were supportive of everyone else.”
The stage for Friday’s regional title game in Berwyn was set back on Sept. 6, when visiting Morton scored a goal in the last minute of play to beat Riverside-Brookfield 2-1.
Despite the loss, the game gave the local rival Bulldogs a shot in the arm.
“We tended to get beat up by Morton in the past,” Riverside-Brookfield senior Max Swicionis said. “To come out this year in the regular-season … showed us we can compete with anyone.
“We understand that (Morton) is a strong team, that we maybe needed to play a little more defensively, a little more safe, and just always be at 110 percent. That was the only way we were going to be able to compete with these guys.”
Along the night’s path, Morton hit a post, a crossbar, sent assorted shots wide of frame, and saw Bulldogs keeper Nick Gilberto save everything else.
Morton forward Max Aquino’s recent return from injury should pay dividends during the postseason for the Mustangs, and he was infinitely dangerous whenever he had a ball on his foot anywhere near the goal.
Riverside-Brookfield’s breakouts in transition contrasted Morton’s steady pressure throughout, but neither Gilberto nor Morton keeper Diego Vargas were willing to budge.
Morton’s Josh Trujillo forced a Gilberto save on a quality head shot at 12 minutes, and Aquino smacked a ball off the post at 28 minutes. The Bulldogs’ Xavier Salamanca spun at the 18 and fired just wide, and teammate Diego Villegas sent a missile in from 40 yards that Vargas snared just under the crossbar.
Beyond a small handful of chances either way, Morton played its traditional style throughout, finding feet and spending the lion’s share of time on the Bulldogs’ half of the field. Morton’s back four spent time pushing up in support of the attack.
At halftime, Bageanis asked his boys to simply stay the course.
“We just talked about supporting each other and keeping our heads up,” Ayala said.
Morton started the second half in fifth gear, but not before avoiding potential disaster at 42 minutes; the Bulldogs blocked an attempted Vargas clear but sent the ensuing shot just over the bar.
From there, Morton’s pressure earned the Mustangs multiple free kicks on Riverside-Brookfield’s half. Their best chance came at 50 minutes when Rafael Ramirez sent a shot off the crossbar from 16 yards after a Trujillo free kick.
But the Bulldogs defended well in a crowded box throughout, and Gilberto took care of everything else to the end of regulation.
The first overtime period saw Aquino fire just wide from 10 yards. Then Villegas reached the end line and whipped a serve across the goalmouth to no avail.
Gilberto shined in the second overtime with Morton turning up the heat. Jonathan Almaguer found Aquino for a shot one minute into the second overtime, but he went wide. Gilberto made a fine stop on a Ramirez shot from 12 yards, and Morton’s Ivan Ramirez sent the ensuing shot over the bar. Gilberto made a diving stop at the post on a Yahir Aguilar shot as time wound down toward the shootout.
In the tiebreaker, Salamaca and Villegas converted for Riverside-Brookfield. Ivan Ramirez, Almaguer and Julian Soto converted for Morton before Ayala clinched it.
But not before Jimenez’s two monumental PK saves.
“On the first one, when he was about to shoot he looked slightly to my right, and that’s when I knew that’s where he was going to go,” Jimenez said. “As a goalkeeper, that’s what you have to do. On the second (save) I watched the way he moved when he was about to shoot and then I just reacted.”
For those two pivotal saves and after only about 10 minutes into his varsity career, Jimenez earned the Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match honor.
Afterwards, Bageanis applauded his players for a team-wide effort.
“Obviously we had our chances in regulation and through the overtime,” Bageanis said. “We made several lineup moves to free guys up and get more offense. We couldn’t do any more than what we tried.
“We knew before the game it would be this kind of game. It’s the rivalry: they know a lot of our guys; and they match up well with us. I don’t care what the seeds are, throw them away because this game can go either way.”
Ayala also liked what he saw from his side in the win.
“We could have done better, but I think we played really good. We talked and communicated a lot,” Ayala said. “When we played them earlier this year, we didn’t have a team, a foundation, yet. Now we’ve got a better foundation, and we’ve got our players back.”
Top-seeded Morton (15-5-2) plays fourth-seeded Hinsdale Central in a Proviso East Sectional semifinal at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Of course, the flip side of Morton’s joy was Riverside-Brookfield’s dejection. The Bulldogs gave Morton all it could handle for 100 minutes of soccer but consolation is hard to find after a regional title game loss.
“Absolute heartbreaker, but I couldn’t be more proud of these guys,” Riverside-Brookfield coach Ivek Halic said. “They went toe-to-toe with a very high-quality Morton side and took them to penalties. I couldn’t be more happy with these guys, and it’s just unfortunate we had to lose.”
Ninth-seeded Riverside-Brookfield (10-11-1) went into Friday’s game on the heels of a 2-1 win over no. 8-seed Jones. The Bulldogs’ play down the season’s stretch belied their overall record to end the year.
“We had a tough schedule. We battled injuries all year, and we shot ourselves in the foot a bunch and lost some close games,” Swicionis said. “Today we finally figured it out. I love this team, I love these guys, and I wouldn’t have gone out any other way. I’m proud of what we did tonight.”
Not to be lost in the loss was Gilberto’s exceptional play. The keeper cut off every serve and made a handful of spectacular diving stops to keep the slate clean and give his Bulldogs a chance in the face of a Morton team that controlled most of the night’s possession.
“The whole season he’s been playing like this,” Halic said of Gilberto. “He has kept us in so many games along with our backline.”
Bulldogs defenders like Massimo Franceschina, Josef Guerrero, and Daniel Martinez led a team-wide effort of stellar defense against Morton.
Halic spent 15 minutes talking to his boys after the loss, then another five or so hugging and thanking players individually, largely in gratitude to the 14 seniors he’ll lose to graduation.
“The last couple training sessions and the last couple weeks, we just kind of honed in," Halic said. "We’ve been having good practices, quality film sessions breaking down everything, and we just kind of jelled as a team. And everybody stepped up ... everyone was working together, and it was a gritty game. We just fell a little bit short.
“I absolutely love those guys. We lose 14 seniors, and I cannot thank them enough for what they’ve done for the program, what they’ve done this year. I just absolutely love them.”
GK: Nick Gilberto
D: Massimo Frenceschina
D: Josef Guerrero
D: Daniel Martinez
D: Liam Kaiser
MF: Tomas Kunickas
MF: Will Sessler
MF: Noah Berndt
MF: Diego Villegas
MF: Max Swicionis
F: Xavier Salamanca
GK: Diego Vargas
D: Christian Valadez
D: Josh Trujillo
D: Julian Soto
MF: Rafael Ramirez
MF: Jonathan Almaguer
MF: Alexis Meza Dominguez
MF: Xavier Avila
MF: Sergio Villegas
MF: Ivan Ramirez
F: Max Aquino
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Miguel Jimenez, fr., GK, Morton
Morton: Ivan Ramirez, Jonathan Almaguer, Julian Soto, Enrique Ayala
Riverside-Brookfield - Xavier Salamaca, Diego Villegas