GILMAN — Entering Tuesday’s IHSA Class 1A Iroquois West Regional semifinal against the host Raiders, Momence had been playing some of the best soccer in the state, winning its past 15 matches, including a pair against the Raiders.
But thanks to the right foot of Angel Barajas, Momence’s streak came to a screeching halt.
Barajas scored a hat trick, with all three goals coming in the second half, as the Raiders erased a 1-0 halftime deficit to earn a 3-2 victory and a trip to Saturday’s regional championship in the process.
“I didn’t know I was going to get three [goals], but God helped me out, and it happened,” Barajas said. “My team believed in me. ... I just love them.”
The two teams last squared off just a week ago in the championship of the Iroquois West Invitational, with Momence edging the Raiders in nine rounds of penalty kicks in a game in which emotions were at an all-time high. Momence also bested the Raiders 4-2 in September.
None of that mattered for the Raiders and coach Rich Alvarez, who said his team entered Tuesday with sky-high confidence.
“Last week’s game, yeah, it was our tournament, but I was looking more forward to this game,” Alvarez said. “The saying is, ‘When you meet three times, it usually goes the other team’s way,’ and it did this time.
“We worked on a lot of new stuff, switched a few guys around, and we just felt more confident.”
It was Momence that struck first Tuesday, when Jared Espino found the back of the net with five minutes left in the first half. Although his team took to the break with the lead, Momence coach Alex Habeeb knew the Raiders had the horses to tie it at a moment’s notice.
“One to zero is not a sure thing in football,” Habeeb said. “We wanted to keep the pressure up and score more goals, but it didn’t go our way. But I would take these 23 boys over any team in the state; I’m so proud of them.”
It took all of five minutes of second-half play for Barajas to tally his first goal, a beauty from just outside the top of the box on a nifty assist from Diego Camarena.
“Diego had a little tap to me, and I wasn’t thinking right, so I just shot it,” Barajas said. “It curved a little bit, the goalie barely moved, and it went in.”
The game remained deadlocked for most of the half, with both defenses rising to the occasion. In the 72nd minute, Momence was called for a penalty in the box on a Raiders corner, which set Barajas up for his second goal on the ensuing penalty kick.
Six minutes later, another Momence foul set Barajas up with a free kick from about 25 yards out, a shot he put past Momence goalkeeper Alan Ortiz to seemingly put the game out of reach.
But Espino scored on a header just seconds later to keep it close and give Momence a puncher’s chance until the final seconds slowly ticked away.
“We got that [penalty] call late, and that took the wind out of our sails a bit but just for a few minutes,” Habeeb said. “The kids came back and fought hard — Jared scored, but it took a team effort to get that done, and that’s why I’m so proud of my boys.”
Alvarez said he knew when the Raiders took the 2-1 lead their opposition had another goal in them but insisted on keeping the pressure up defensively, a signature characteristic the Raiders have shown in recent years.
“I knew they’d come right back and get at least one more on us; I just had that feeling,” Alvarez said. “There’s not much you can do — some coaches set their defense back, but I like to pressure more.
“It was a long eight minutes … but we slowed it down a little bit, tried to relax a little bit and get a win.”
Tuesday put an end to the third season of Momence soccer, all three under Habeeb’s leadership. The team has compiled a record of 43-18-1, an impressive feat for a new program.
“I love these boys. Just to start from nothing to something in a small town, a great community, these boys are awesome,” Habeeb said. “They’re amazing, their families are amazing, and we’ve had great support from the community, the administration, my athletic director, and it makes me want to get up and come coach my tail off every day for these boys.
“Unfortunately, you can work hard and play hard and things don’t go your way, and if that’s in the postseason, that’s the end of your season.”
The Raiders will take on Manteno at 10 a.m. Saturday at home for the IHSA Class 1A Iroquois West Regional championship. The Panthers knocked off the Raiders 4-1 earlier this season in a game the Raiders entered with a slew of injuries. Alvarez said a full-strength effort Saturday hopefully will tilt the scales in his team’s favor.
“We played Manteno at the Herscher tournament and they came out and beat us,” Alvarez said. “We had five starters [who] weren’t there, and we’re at full steam now, so we’re gonna work and try and get another win Saturday.”
The Raiders improved to 19-6-1, and Momence’s season ended at 17-4-1.
Manteno runs away from Beecher
Tuesday’s matinee saw Manteno score four goals in the second half, three in a five-minute span, to top Beecher 6-0 and advance to Saturday’s title game.
Panthers coach Justin Emerson said his team came out of the gate with an intensity that had been lacking in recent weeks, which was evidenced by an early Ion Barrio goal that set the table.
“I don’t know if it was the older guys getting into the younger guys about it being do or die, but our energy level was better than it’s been the past two or three weeks,” Emerson said. “When you play with energy and intensity and get after it, good things happen.
“We were able to luck out, and a good set piece got us on the board early, and we were rolling.”
The Bobcats had been playing some of their best soccer as of late, as they entered Tuesday with a five-game winning streak. But that success couldn’t be found against the Panthers, as much as coach Dawn Compton and company tried to reignite the flame.
“We’ve been playing good soccer, and I think if we got one early in the second half, you would have seen a different game,” Compton said. “We just didn’t have it tonight and kind of got away from what we’ve been doing the past couple weeks that made us successful.
“We made some bad choices on the ball, and it cost us, but props to Manteno; they played a great game.”
After a pair of Drew St. Aubin goals made it 3-0, the Panthers doubled that lead to 6-0 between the 63rd and 67th minutes, as Alec Miller assisted Scott Eldridge, Barrio and A.J. Gilliam on goals to put the game out of reach.
“A lot of teams see a 3-0 scoreline and may pump the brakes a bit,” Emerson said. “This is a team where some of the older guys know that in soccer, anything can happen fast. They stayed on it, put the pedal down, and we were able to score a couple more for the win.”
Tuesday might have ended the Bobcats’ season earlier than they had hoped, but for Compton, the loss took nothing away from a successful season that ended with an 11-9 record, an improvement of nine wins since this year’s senior crop stepped on the varsity scene in 2017.
“It’s always hard to say bye to those kids, and days like this aren’t fun, but I’m grateful that I get to spend time with these kids, build relationships with them and make memories,” Compton said. “I told the seniors that most of them came onto the varsity as sophomores, and our program was in bad shape.
“Their sophomore year, we won two games, so to be able to turn it around their senior year and finish with a winning record, I’m happy to see that for these guys.”
And for the Panthers, who improved to 15-6 with the win, Tuesday was just the first step in what Emerson hopes is a plentiful postseason.
“It can be tough sometimes with a young team to get a feel for where their minds are at, but from the look of this game, they understand what was at stake, and hopefully, we continue that momentum against Iroquois West,” Emerson said. “They’re a good team with some kids [who] can play.”