ROUND LAKE -- Scoring threats from Fernando Cuahquentzi, Beto Gaytan, Jayden Plancarte, Eduardo Nava and Aaron Saldana didn’t find the net for Elgin during the first half of Friday’s Class 3A Round Lake Sectional final against the hosts. Obviously, it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
The top-seeded Maroons had no problem putting players in excellent positions to score but lacked execution for the first 60 minutes. It left them deadlocked with the upset-minded and sixth-seeded Panthers, who fit into Cinderella’s glass slipper after beating higher seeds Larkin (no. 3) and Streamwood (no. 2).
Finally, thanks to the quick reaction of senior Edgar Perez, who was named the Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match, the Maroons broke through with 19:35 remaining. Watching intently as Saldana’s corner kick caromed off the far post, Perez slid forward and corralled the ricochet in front of the net before sending it home for a 1-0 lead.
Finally, the Maroons delivered after watching numerous chances sail wide, high or into the arms of Round Lake's freshman goalkeeper Gio Ayala.
“I just told the guys to stay with it,” Maroons coach Jimmy Romano said. “They were doing everything right in the first half. Our halftime talk was short, about one minute, and I sent them on their way. I told them to stick with it and move onto the next play. You cannot dread, you've got to have confidence. They stuck with it, and we got one, then two and almost three. It’s just resilience, staying consistent and knowing that next one is going to come.”
Elgin (16-3-3) had reason to feel pressure building.
“I don’t think we’ve had it this long in a game where we weren’t scoring after getting that many chances,” Romano continued. “This was a little bit new for them. They responded well. They kept playing. They kept pushing. They kept trying to create.
"Some players have been here (in a sectional championship) for three years before. So the experience kicked in and they were staying calm and not getting frustrated too much.
“I told them: 'Guys, keep doing what you’re doing and stick with it mentally,'” he said. “It’s going to come. Keep knocking on the door. There’s nothing you need to change now. We didn’t have to make any subs. because the players were doing so well. They executed on the corner kick, and that’s a play that we’ve worked on. It’s good to see that.”
Plancarte picked a great time to score his first goal of the season. He provided the Maroons with insurance in the 67th minute. After receiving a pass from Nava, the sophomore pushed ahead toward the end line before firing his shot to his right to make it 2-0.
“Nava got the ball and he decided to come forward. I was open right there on the wing,” he said. “I got to my right and hit with my left, and that’s basically how we scored. It felt nice.”
His fellow sophomore teammate and best friend Danny Perez was thrilled to celebrate the moment with his buddy.
“We have an amazing team and gave it all we had,” Perez said. “We did create a lot, but we need to work on finishing them better. We beat them at their home, too. It doesn’t get any better than beating a team at their home. I was really proud of (Plancarte). He got his first goal of the season at one of the most important times.”
The two-goal advantage intensified the feeling of relief that Perez had delivered not seven minutes earlier.
“We had so many chances in the first half, and we kept going at it the whole time, but it’s soccer and anything can happen,” Perez said. “We couldn’t score, but we were more intense in the second half. We could see they couldn’t defend us, so we kept attacking. I looked at the corner kick as an opportunity to score. I just had to push it in.”
Nava had carried the offensive load for Elgin in the previous pair of games with back-to-back hat-tricks, his 10th and 11th of the season. Round Lake held him scoreless thanks to sophomore Iroel Velazquez and junior Anthony Acosta, who blanketed him throughout the match.
“(Nava) is a heck of a player,” Round Lake coach Hugo Tellez said. “He’s a handful. That’s why he’s got those 39 goals. We did as much as we could on him."
The Panthers could not field their first 11.
"Unfortunately, we had some injuries beforehand," the coach continued. "Players stepped in and did the best they could. Unfortunately it didn’t go our way.”
Midway through the first half, Plancarte sent a cross to Nava who was gearing up to try to head it in, but Velazquez came flying in to thwart the opportunity.
Arguably Nava’s best scoring chance of the night came in the 27th minute when Saldana sent a beautiful pass ahead of him. The forward raced forward, secured possession and headed toward the goal for a 1-v-1 chance with Ayala, but skied his shot.
“Our defense deserves props,” Ayala said. “(Velazquez and Acosta) were man-marking so he wasn’t able to get anything going. It was mostly his teammates. They were the ones that scored the goals and not him.”
Round Lake (16-6-1) had no issue with taking on the role of underdog, but also felt that it deserved to be playing for the sectional, despite needing to beat higher seeds to get there.
“A lot of people look at our conference and don’t really respect our conference,” Tellez said. “We’re a team to look at. Everybody says we’re the underdog. That’s fine. We play a great brand of soccer, and that’s who we are. Records don’t mean anything in the playoffs. Whoever wants it the most and whoever scores first usually is the one who ends up winning it.”
Elgin was just 1:03 away from finishing off the Panthers when a scuffle broke out. From the middle of the field, Round Lake junior Alex Corona sent a threatening 36-yard, low-arching free kick straight into the box. Elgin senior goalkeeper Carlos Benitez came off his line to grab the ball on the short hop. He was clipped by unmarked Round Lake senior Justin Hernandez, whose angled charge from the left side was a step late.
Benitez spun about 90 degrees and fell to the turf. He stayed down while the teams milled together, words were exchanged and several shoves occurred. Meanwhile, Nava sprinted from the other end of the field and ran into the mix. After the referee and the far-side assistant convened, two Round Lake jplayers were shown cards -- one a red and one a yellow. Nava received a red card.
Winning their second sectional title in three years was a fantastic way for Elgin to close the night.
“It felt so amazing to win,” Perez said. “We needed to get this for the whole team. We’re a whole family. The players, the coaches, the staff members. It’s a whole family. We couldn’t have done this without each other.”
That bond will be tested when the Nava-less Maroons find themselves lined up against fellow no. 1-seed Glenbrook North at 6 p.m. Oct. 31 in the Barrington Supersectional.
GK: David Casteneda
D: Roberto Salinas
D: Oliver Garcia
D: Xavier Salinas
D: Edgar Perez
MF: Fernando Cuhaquentzi
MF: Jayden Plancarte
MF: Aaron Saldana
MF: Beto Gaytan
F: Danny Perez
F: Eduardo Nava
GK: Gio Ayala
D: Alex Corona
D: Justin Hernandez
D: Sebastian Herrera
D: Iroel Velazquez
D: Luis Salinas
MF: Victor Botello
MF: Yahir Hernandez
MF: Jorgie Morales
MF: Vairon Martinez
F: Oscar Martinez
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Edgar Perez, sr., D, Elgin
E: Edgar Perez (Aaron Saldana), 60’
E: Jayden Plancarte (Eduardo Nava), 67’