MAYWOOD - It’s so important, according to Morton coach Jim Bageanis, to get the first goal on the board in a postseason game.
Last Friday, the top-seeded Mustangs slogged through 100 scoreless minutes in its own Class 3A regional championship match against ninth-seeded Riverside-Brookfield.
They survived in a shootout to advance. Bageanis said that he and his team had a talk prior to Wednesday’s Proviso East Sectional semifinal against fourth-seed Hinsdale Central about doing all they could to score first -- and score quickly.
“We said that we’ve got to put one in early,” said Bageanis “so we can set the tone, get our game going, and get them (Hinsdale Central) off their game. Then they might have to press a little more than they want to.
“Putting a goal in early in the playoffs puts more pressure on the other team.”
The Mustangs players took their coach’s words to heart at Theresa L. Kelly Stadium.
Morton scored in the 8th minute, tacked on an early goal in the second half and then survived a furious Red Devils attack down the stretch for a 2-1 regulation victory.
The Mustangs (16-5-2) move on to face second-seeded Lyons (17-6-2), a 1-0 winner over no. 3 seed Young (17-6-2) in the second semi. The final is set for 4 p.m. Friday.
Morton and the Lions faced off Sept. 16 and settled for a 1-1 draw.
Morton's early goals in each half gave them an edge against Hinsdale Central.
“It was great that we set that tone tonight,” said Bageanis. “After we got one in, we were able to play with more confidence.”
Several times, late in the game, it appeared that Hinsdale Central was on the brink of getting the equalizer, but each time Morton sophomore keeper Diego Vargas shut the door.
Both Vargas and his counterpart, Red Devils goalkeeper Martin Contreras, were terrific in the last 15 minutes of the game.
“He’s pretty incredible all the time,” said longtime Hinsdale Central coach Michael Wiggins of his junior keeper.
“He came up big on some spot-on chances tonight.”
Wiggins was impressed with the way his squad battled, especially as they pressed late for the tying goal.
That led to some mixed emotions, because the coach added that he felt his team played well enough to win -- or at least take the match to extra time.
“I’ve said all year,” said Wiggins, “the thing you wish for is that your team could get the reward for all of the effort they put in.
“They were creating chances, creating opportunities. It would have been nice to get the equalizer so we could have taken them to overtime.
“Overall, that’s a credit to Morton, for being as coordinated as they were: the way they kept possession; and the way they got on second-chance balls.
“I thought they were really effective on their counterattacks. They kept us busy in the back.”
Morton went on the attack right from the opening kickoff.
The Mustangs almost scored in the second minute when senior midfielder Alexis Meza-Dominguez sent a cross in to classmate Max Aquino, who just missed.
Aquino was at it again 2 minutes later, hitting the crossbar with a point-blank shot.
Morton stayed on the offensive and broke through four minutes later.
Meza-Dominguez made a long run down the right wing and crossed to midfielder Ivan Ramirez.
The senior fired a hard shot from 26 yards. Contreras dove and seemed to get a hand on the ball, but it found the back of the net just inside the far post.
“Ivan is one of our top players,” said Bageanis of Ramirez, who excelled up-front and in back against the Red Devils. “He can play on both sides of the ball. We had him in the back most of the year, but now we’ve moved him up to defensive midfield.
“He’s kind of playing two roles for us now in the midfield, and that’s his natural position anyway. He was playing out of position (as a defender), but now we have Julian Soto back from injury, so we were able to adjust.”
Ramirez and Aquino will both toil for UIC next fall.
Hinsdale Central had two great chances to tie the game before halftime.
In the 23rd minute Red Devils senior midfielder Nolan Spence sent a pass into the box, but the attempt by junior teammate Austen Szurgot from 15 yards sailed just over the crossbar.
Then in the 33rd minute, Hinsdale Central senior forward Luca Davies sent a high, lined serve into the box. With the Mustangs keeper out of position, teammate Robbie Rocque saw only an empty net in front of him.
The senior leaped high in the air but couldn’t quite connect on the header try, and the score stayed 1-0 Mustangs at halftime.
During the break, Morton senior midfielder Jonathan Almaguer said his team talked about staying the course and playing with intensity for the entire 80 minutes.
“We came out from the beginning and totally showed that we could keep it going right from the start until the final whistle was blown,” said Almaguer.
“We had chances throughout the game, we just had to convert, be effective and keep the lead.”
Morton doubled the lead with less than 2 minutes gone in the second stanza.
Mustangs midfielder Sergio Villegas took possession of a Hinsdale Central clearance attempt. He settled the ball, turned and found a ton of space and then buried a 23-yard effort.
Ironically, the goal that put Morton up 2-0 seemed to energize Hinsdale Central.
The Red Devils picked up the pace and made it 2-1 in the 55th minute on senior Martin Montoya’s 10-yard strike.
“I thought we put the pressure on, and I think the momentum shifted pretty significantly in the second half,” said Wiggins.
“We started to do a better job of being first to the ball, and finding ways not only to keep it, but also to keep playing it down the lines and getting to that final third.”
With the game in the balance, both teams went all out in the final stages.
Morton almost found an insurance goal in the 70th minute. Ramirez sent a rocket toward the goal that was saved by Contreras. Then Almaguer took a feed from Villegas and fired another blast from just six yards, but Contreras stood tall again.
In the 77th minute, Red Devil Rocque weaved through traffic and found space. His attempt to tie the match ended with a spectacular Vargas save.
Vargas was at it again in the 79th minute, leaping to parry away another Hinsdale Central attempt that looked like it was headed for the back of the net.
Hinsdale Central never gave up the fight. It sent another cross toward the goal with just 20 seconds left. During the ensuing scrum near the goal line, a foul was called on the Red Devils.
Morton gleefully watched the final seconds tick off the clock after they launched the free kick toward the middle of the field.
“This was a tough game,” said Morton defender Soto, a senior.
“We were able to put our chances away, and we did a good job containing them (Hinsdale Central), not letting them get any through-balls.”
Soto added that he was “a little nervous” as the match raced to its conclusion.
“One-goal game, anything could happen,” said Soto. “We had to make sure we locked down to get the win.”
With the defeat, the 16 seniors on the Hinsdale Central roster saw their prep careers come to an end.
“They’ve made quite an impression on their teammates,” said Wiggins of his senior class. “They’ve made an impression on their classmates at school; they’ve made an impression on the school staff, and they’ve certainly made us proud.”
Wiggins also reflected on his career as a head coach, which included a state championship in 2014.
He got a bit emotional when talking about the season-long effort of his current side.
“Thirty times I’ve gone through a season,” said Wiggins, “and twenty-nine times we’ve had to wrap it up like we did this one.
“Only one team can make it to the final game where they don’t lose, but what our guys did tonight -- they just competed right until the very end.”
Bageanis said he has a ton of respect for Hinsdale Central.
“We gave up a lot of set pieces to them tonight,” said the Morton coach, “and they’re a great team off those.
“Mike (Wiggins) does a great job coaching them up. We were trying to avoid giving up the set pieces. We were lucky to get out of the gauntlet in the second half, because we gave up way more than we should have.”
Bageanis, who helped coach the Mustangs to a state title in 2011, gave big-time props to the performance Wednesday of Aquino, one of his seniors.
“Max did a good job of being dangerous up-top, holding the ball and getting some through.
“They (Hinsdale Central) were kind of double-teaming him when he started to get near the ball, and that opened up some stuff for us.
“We were able to get the ball down the sidelines a little bit more than usual tonight, with that little extra space that Max gives us."
GK: Martin Contreras
D: Enzo Cinque
D: Oliver Pohlenz
D: Denis Altman
MF: Austen Szurgot
MF: Martin Montoya
MF: Nolan Spence
MF: Ardit Abdullai
F: Robbie Rocque
F: Luca Davies
F: Matthew Gantar
GK: Diego Vargas
D: Julian Soto
D: Rafael Ramirez
D: Josh Trujillo
D: Christian Valadez
MF: Ivan Ramirez
MF: Jonathan Almaguer
MF: Alexis Meza Dominguez
MF: Caleb Mendoza
MF: Sergio Villegas
F: Max Aquino
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Ivan Ramirez, sr., MF, Morton
Morton: I. Ramirez (Meza-Dominguez), 8’
Morton: Villegas (unassisted), 42’
HC: Montoya (unassisted), 55'