STERLING – The sectional semifinals have never been easy for the Kaneland boys soccer program.
After winning their two previous regional championships in 2004 and 2010, the Knights bowed out in the first game of the sectional round both occasions. In Wednesday’s IHSA Class 2A Sterling Sectional semifinal against Freeport, Kaneland, again, wasn’t at its best, but the result was different, and that’s all that mattered to the Knights.
Alex Gil’s goal off a header with 20:02 left in the second half proved to be the game-winner and Kaneland advanced to the first sectional championship in program history with a 1-0 win over Freeport.
“It’s awesome. It’s good to do something that our school has never done before,” Kaneland goalkeeper Marshall Farthing said. “We’ve had amazing teams that have never made it out of regionals, so to make it this far is an honor.”
Kaneland will take on East Moline United at Sterling on Friday night in the sectional championship game. United defeated Rochelle in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
The Knights (16-3-2) struggled to put much together in the first half as Freeport dominated possession.
But playing against the wind, Kaneland’s defensive line stood tall, clearing away a number of free kicks placed into the penalty box.
The Pretzels almost got on the scoreboard with two scoring opportunities just before halftime.
Adam Winters ran onto a deflected long ball and fired a shot toward the right post, but Farthing made a diving stop with his left hand and corralled the rebound.
Less than two minutes later, Farthing again denied Winters with a diving stop to his right after the Freeport junior was left alone in the penalty box and struck a half-volley toward the left post.
“I’m happy with the defense,” Kaneland coach Scott Parillo said. “I thought they played outstanding; that’s what they usually do.”
The Knights’ offense was jump-started after halftime and Kaneland had multiple scoring chances before finally converting midway through the second half.
A Kaneland corner kick was cleared by Freeport (8-15) just outside the penalty box, but Sam Rymarz put a bouncing ball back in the box and Gil, unmarked, deflected it in on a header for a 1-0 lead.
“If I could just turn around and get something on it, I knew I was right there and had a good shot at goal,” Gil said. “You always have to have a sense of where you’re at on the field. It’s just awareness and positioning.”
Freeport didn’t manage many scoring chances in the second half, but almost came up with an improbable equalizer when Logan Kuntz’s last-second shot from the top of the penalty box forced Farthing to make another key save.
Parillo pointed to the near-miss as just one of the problems the Knights will need to iron out before the sectional final.
“We needed a wake-up call,” Parillo said. “I’m happy we won, but I’m also happy this was probably a wake-up call for us. Trust me, we’ll be ready on Friday.”