When Grant Park first opened the 2021 boys soccer season, the Dragons had one major goal in mind: to find themselves in a regional title match come postseason.

On Tuesday evening, about two months later, the Dragons managed to check that goal off their list with a dominant 8-1 victory against Herscher in the IHSA Class 1A Regional Semifinal game on a neutral field at Coal City.

Dragons coach Mark Boccia said with his team so close to its goal, there wasn’t a need to motivate his squad because they already were hungry enough to take matters into their own hands.

“At this point in the season, I don’t have to motivate my guys a whole lot,” Boccia said. “They were ready to come in here from the bus ride, and they were amped up, ready to go. The second that ball went into play, they took care of business.”

Grant Park got things started right away by scoring within the first minute of action, when Nolan Schneider connected with Ayden Delaney on a long throw-in, giving Delaney his first of an unbelievable seven goals off a header. Just five minutes later, the Dragons repeated the same exact Schneider-to-Delaney connection, which put Grant Park up 2-0.

“I think we caught Herscher off guard in the beginning with our throw-ins,” Boccia said. “I don’t think they realized how far Schneider could throw the ball in, but it was essentially like a set piece, and luckily for us, Delaney capitalized on two early goals.”

The Dragons then added a third goal when Rylan Heldt assisted Delaney for his third with 10 minutes left in the first half, giving Grant Park a 3-0 lead they would take into halftime.

“We’ve been playing together for years, and so our team chemistry is the biggest thing,” Delaney said. “We know where we are going to be on the field and being able to put the ball in spots to put it in the back of the net.”

The second half looked a lot like the first half, as Delaney went on to notch four more scores in the final 40 minutes of action. He scored his fourth goal three minutes into the second half before Herscher finally got on the scoreboard with a goal from senior Trey Schwarzkopf off a penalty kick that cut the Dragons’ lead to 4-1 with 29 minutes remaining in the second half.

Just three minutes later, Grant Park responded with another goal with Heldt finding the back of the net off another great pass from Schneider. Up 5-1 with 26 minutes remaining in the contest, Delaney managed to secure three more goals at the 66-, 67- and 74-minute marks.

“It felt really good to score seven goals today,” Delaney said. “I’ve got really good teammates to play me through, and so I won’t take all the credit at all.

“I was just able to finish the play after my teammates set me up perfectly.”

The seven-goal victory against the Tigers helped Grant Park not only improve its winning streak to 11 games but it also put them in the regional title game, in which they will face the winner of today’s meeting between Coal City and Manteno at 11 a.m. Saturday for the championship in Coal City.

“Putting up eight goals is nice, but I felt like we just played solid defense from start to finish,” Boccia said.

As for Herscher, its season came to an end with a 10-10-2 overall record. The Tigers were missing their key sweeper in Keegan Elliot against the Dragons, which forced the squad to move multiple players around in different positions.

“I thought the boys were resilient, and they got after it in the second half,” Tigers coach Alan High said. “This would have been our eighth consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance had we won, and so it’s been a great run, and it’s not one that is going to end. It’s just one that is a bit of a wake-up call.”

STAT BOOK

Delaney erupted for seven goals to lead Grant Park. Schneider added five assists, and Heldt totaled one goal and an assist. Goalkeeper Luke Horn notched five saves behind the net.

Tucker White led Herscher with 14 saves. Schwarzkopf scored the lone Tigers goal off a penalty kick in the second half.

Cody is a sports journalist who's been with the Daily Journal since 2020. He's been a sports reporter since his days at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 2019.