Steven Albers struck the blow Tuesday night that soccer fans in Jacksonville waited decades for: the winning goal in a supersectional contest.
The Crimsons’ senior swooped in on a loose ball, broke away with his quarry and drove it past Springfield High goalkeeper Evan Wright to give Jacksonville a 3-2 lead with six minutes and six seconds left in the second overtime at the University of Illinois Springfield soccer complex.
It wasn’t a golden goal, but proved valuable enough after the remaining time elapsed and hundreds of Jacksonville fans poured forth to celebrate their team’s berth in the Class 2A Final Four.
“This is the best feeling I’ve had in my life,” said Albers afterward. “All these people are here celebrating with us and I’m just here excited because we get to play another soccer game.”
The next soccer game for Jacksonville (21-4) will be at 1 p.m. Friday at Hoffman Estates’ soccer complex against Chicago Mount Carmel (20-4), which defeated Chicago Washington (13-8-1) 1-0 on Tuesday at the Romeoville Supersectional.
“This is just a special moment for us as a team,” said fifth-year head coach Evan Philpott, who was a forward on the Crimsons’ 2004 squad that lost in the sectional finals to Quincy Notre Dame. “I’m not one to look back. In my senior year, we lost (the sectional title game) on a goal with 4.4 seconds left. But for these guys, the opportunity has always been there because they’re so close and so committed to each other.”
Jacksonville got on the board first on a header by senior Nash Oldenettel early in the 14th minute.
Springfield (22-3-1) had a reply five minutes later when senior forward Logan Willard took a pass from Luke Owsley, then drove through an opening on the right side of the Crimsons defense for a close-range score.
The match stayed tied 1-1 until intermission, though each side had at least two other decent chances to score in the first half. The Senators had two goals negated by offsides calls Tuesday; one in the first half, another early in the second overtime.
Springfield coach Pat Phillips shrugged off the offsides calls — “I was too far away to tell for sure,” he said of them — but was livid at the playing condition of the UIS field grass: clumpy, muddy and slippery.
“A different field would have helped,” Phillips said. “It takes away from the game of soccer. You don’t play soccer on this. It becomes kick-ball and it becomes uglier.”
Jacksonville’s Albers agreed.
“This is definitely the worst playing surface we’ve played on this year,” Albers said. “But we took advantage of the surface because we’ve been practicing on this kind of surface all year.”
The Senators quickly grabbed a 2-1 lead in the third minute of the second half on a booming shot by senior midfielder Connor Cunningham.
Philpott said that was a goal many teams don’t necessarily recover from.
“Our backs were against the wall with that strike (by Cunningham),” said Philpott. “That was a once-in-a-lifetime strike and a lot of teams might put their heads down and say ‘holy cow’. A shot like that can be intimidating.”
But the Crimsons had a reply of their own later in the half when junior Jack Racey scored from a Brandon McCombs assist to tie the score.
“We set it into the box and then it went back out,” said Racey. “And I just went post to post and finally got it by the keeper, just posted it in.”
In an intense, evenly played second half, both goalkeepers — Springfield’s Wright and Jacksonville’s Grant Flynn — took turns diving, leaping or sliding to thwart up-close attacks. Albers almost broke the 2-2 tie with a minute left in regulation, but Wright made a diving save to stop him. Seconds later, Wright had to snatch a McCombs header on a corner kick.
The score remained tied until 6:06 remained in the second overtime.
Albers said his decisive goal was the result of a ball that simply got past a Springfield defender. Such occurrences are rare, but Albers anticipated it and pounced.
“This (Springfield) team, they changed formations so that we wouldn’t be able to get breakaways,” said Albers. “But they missed a ball there and I was lucky enough to get to it.”
For once in Jacksonville soccer’s history, the Crimsons, and not the other team, are the ones advancing after a close match.
Philpott said he’s not surprised by the success of this year’s team because he’d watched them improve over the season. But earlier in the season, he doubt he’d have predicted this.
“At the beginning of the year, we didn’t necessarily put out goals like this, but we knew something was there,” Philpott said. “And every single game we’ve gotten better.”
Phillips said that all Jacksonville has to do now is keep playing the way they’ve been, and he hopes they do.
“I hope Jacksonville keeps doing what they’re doing,” Springfield High’s coach said. “And I hope they go on and win it.”
— Contact Brian Webster, 788-1545, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/briweb69.