HOFFMAN ESTATES -- Prior to Thursday’s Class A state semi game against University (Normal), Columbia had conceded only 13 goals all season.
The Eagles had posted 16 shutouts on the year, and as a matter of fact had allowed their opposition more than one goal in only three of its games the entire campaign.
Those lofty defensive statistics, however, didn’t seem to faze their semifinal opponent in the least.
University (Normal) scored two quick first half goals and then played some great defense of its own the rest of the way.
The Pioneers defeated the Eagles 2-0 to move on to the championship match. They advance to play Winnetka’s North Shore Country Day, a 2-0 winner over Peoria Christian, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Hoffman estates High School.
Columbia will face Peoria Christian at noon Friday in the third place match.
“This is huge,” said University (Normal) senior midfielder Cooper Stengel. “Our school hasn’t been in this position since 2016.”
Stengel and junior midfielder Owen Pacetti tallied the goals for the Pioneers, while junior goalkeeper Noah Grieshaber posted the clean-sheet.
It was the 18th goal of the season for Stengel, and the 11th for Pacetti.
“It’s good to be back here at state,” said Pioneers coach Jeremy Stanton, who led the school to its previous title.
Columbia was also a former Class 1A titleist, winning the crown in 2014.
“These guys really deserve it,” added Stanton of his squad. “They’ve worked incredibly hard this season after struggling the last two seasons.
“They really came together as a unit and as a team.”
Columbia coach Jamey Bridges was extremely impressed with his team despite falling just short of playing for the championship.
“We’ve kind of played with a chip on our shoulder all year long,” said Bridges.
“Nobody thought we could do something like this (advance to the Final Four), but I think we proved all those people wrong.
“The way we’ve played this year, especially in the past 10 games or so, has been pretty special. That’s what I’m most proud about.
“The kids have really come together and have been really strong. It stinks that we lost this game, but that doesn’t define our season for sure.”
Columbia held an edge after the opening kickoff, and spent most of the early portion of the initial half of the contest attacking in the University (Normal) side of the field.
That didn’t come as any surprise to the Pioneers, according to junior defender Bryce Nicolas-Penn, who played an outstanding match.
“We watched film on them (Columbia),” said Nicolas-Penn, “and our coaches told us 10 or 20 times that they were a very aggressive team in the first 10 minutes of the game.
“But we were able to score two goals early. Our offense did everything they could in the first half, then the rest of the game was on us (the defense).
“We had to lock up back there and stay together.”
Columbia (17-4-4) forced Grieshaber to make several stellar saves early. Their best chance came in the fourth minute.
After a clearing miscue by the Pioneers, Eagles senior senior Lucas Cole found space from 10 yards away and fired a hard shot, but Grieshaber found a way to make the stop.
In the 14th minute, University (Normal) opened the scoring on a counterattack.
Stengel dribbled through traffic toward the left wing and fired a pass to the brink of the goal line, where it was sent to the back of the net from three yards by Pacetti.
“We’ve been doing that all season,” said Stengel, “driving down the line and whipping a cross in, and it worked.”
Not five minutes later, Pacetti got his chance to return the favor, playing helper on a goal by Stengel.
Pacetti chased down a bounding ball on the right wing, settled and crossed it to Stengel.
The senior finished from eight yards away to make it 2-0 Pioneers with 22:50 remaining in the first half.
“Same thing as the first goal,” said Stengel. “He (Pacetti) drove it to me, the cross, and I was in the right position.”
Columbia almost halved the lead in the 32nd minute.
Eagles junior midfielder Micah James bent a corner kick untouched directly to the Pioneers goal.
Grieshaber somehow got a hand on the ball and deflected it straight up, where it hit the crossbar and bounded over the back of the goal.
That save enabled University (Normal) to keep it’s two-goal lead at intermission.
Nicolas -Penn said that during the break, he and his teammates talked about staying the course.
“We were hyped,” said the junior. “We just needed to be sure that we kept the momentum so we could lock them down in the second half.”
Columbia pushed as hard as they could to open the second stanza, but despite a great effort couldn’t get a ball past Grieshaber.
First in the 44th minute, Eagles defender Liam Bivins did his best to emulate Bayern Munich striker Harry Kane.
Just five days ago, Kane booted a miraculous goal from his own side of the pitch against rival Darmstadt, sending the ball over the keeper’s head and into the net.
Bivins just about did the same. He sent a ball almost 70 yards in the air to the top portion of the Pioneers goal, where it was batted away at the last moment by Grieshaber.
Columbia had two more terrific opportunities early in half number two but came away empty, and that seemed take a little wind out of the Eagles sails.
“It gives you some butterflies a little bit,” said Grieshaber of the potent Columbia beginning in each half. “But I was confident in the ability of my backline to clean it up, stay composed and keep calm.”
Despite being up two goals, University (Normal) was far and away the aggressor in the final portion of the match.
They consistently kept Columba pinned deep in its own territory, and the Eagles could muster only one real chance down the stretch.
In the 77th minute, senior Kane Riebeling sent a perfectly timed cross in to the box, but a point-blank shot by Bivins was stopped by a diving Grieshaber.
Columbia could only helplessly watch the seconds tick away in the final moments as University (Normal) savored the hard-earned victory at the final horn.
With the win, the Pioneers improved to 21-5-2 on the year.
After the game, a humble Grieshaber gave all of the credit to his coaches and fellow players.
“We have an amazing coaching staff,” said the star keeper, “and my teammates support me, so I’m comfortable back there (patrolling the goal).”
Stanton added that he felt good opportunities to score were going to be few and far between against defensive-minded Columbia.
“We knew we weren’t going have to have many chances,” said the coach. “We had to make sure to finish the ones we did get.”
GK: Brady Hemminghaus
D: Jack Fromme
D: Lucas Cole
D: Elliot Nelson
D: Kane Reibeling
D: Liam Bivins
MF: Quinten Frentzel
MF: Micah James
MF: Luke De Wilde
F: Carson Mueth
F: Hayes Van Breusegen
GK: Noah Grieshaber
D: Bryce Nicolas-Penn
D: Connor Evans
D: Noah Molitor
D: Kadin Rayford
MF: Owen Pacetti
MF: JT Kelley
MF: Brady Plattner
MF: Cooper Stengel
MF: Thanapat Missakasavake
F: Vinnie Moreland
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Noah Grieshaber, jr., GK, University (Normal)
University (Normal): Cooper Stengel (Owen Pacetti), 14’
University (Normal): Pacetti (Stengel), 23’