The most successful soccer season in Oregon school history came to an unceremonious and abrupt end in the finals of the Stillman Valley IHSA Class 1A regional Oct. 13.
The Hawks (17-4-2) lost 2-1 to Stillman Valley (14-5-2), a team Oregon had beaten twice this year on its way to an undefeated conference title.
In a game played in rainy and muddy conditions, the Cardinals took a 2-0 lead and severely limited Oregon scoring opportunities in the second half for a third straight regional crown.
“Energy-wise, they out-worked us,” Oregon coach Ben Thomas said. “Our guys always work hard, but Stillman had the edge today.”
“I think we were more hungry at the net,” said Stillman coach Lyn Larsen. “Coming off a 22-2 season, but only winning 13 games this year, they still believed in themselves.”
The player making the biggest impact for Stillman was Leo Lenth. The 5-foot-5, 125-pound forward/midfielder sat out the first contest between the two teams and was less than 100 percent in the second game, still on the mend from a clavicle injury.
Ten minutes into this game, though, it was apparent he was back to full strength. In the play of the game, Lenth took a pass from Keaton Weber and put it through the net on a crowd-pleasing acrobatic header.
“That was a spectacular goal,” Oregon defender Mark Schmidt said. “I got caught too far outside and no one pinched in beside me.”
Lenth, one of three native-born Ethiopians of the same family on the Cardinal roster, wasn’t done with his offensive fireworks. A random 25-yard kick by Lenth that normally wouldn’t have had a chance against Hawk goalkeeper Alec Ketter, fell through the net for a 2-0 lead. Ketter had a clear shot on the ball, but slipped on the mud and was unable to reach it in time.
“That wasn’t Ketter’s fault,” Thomas said. “We had a defensive breakdown that allowed an open shot. Leo gives them speed up top. He’s real feisty.”
In the first half, the Hawks also had shots on goal, but the closest they would come was an Ian Holley long-range bullet that hit the side post and a Jake Adams breakaway attempt stopped by Steig Theden.
“In the first half, we created lots of opportunities,” Thomas said.
In the second half, that attack mentality was missing.
“What hurt us most was the inability to score in the first half,” Adams said. “We’re not used to that. Mentally, it brought us down.”
With both a 2-0 lead and psychological advantage, Stillman went on the defensive in the second half, putting extra pressure on Hawk leading scorer, Matt Ajvazi.
“We man-marked him with the polar bear,” Larsen said, referring to Kyle Kent, a paley-white senior transfer from Hononegah who never played soccer until this year. “He did a nice job on him.”
Stillman also used its 2-goal cushion to sacrifice a bit on offense and place a higher emphasis on defensive staffing. “In the second half, they played an extra guy (Weber) back there,” Thomas said.
With 10 minutes left in the game, Ajvazi managed to close the gap to 2-1 on a score in heavy traffic. Playing near the net, Ajvazi took a corner kick from Jake Kleveland and snuck it the ball past three Cardinal defenders.
“The goal gave us a sense of urgency,” Adams said. “We didn’t have it when we were down 2-0.”
Suddenly, the Hawks emerged from what had been a sluggish second half in which they had failed to register a single shot-on-goal.
The Hawk cheering section also began to stir, as one of them was even booted for harassing an official and escorted off the premises by SV Athletic Director Steve Stewart.
Oregon’s slim chances to tie the game ended, as a desperation shot from a bad angle with one minute left by Ajvazi did not even require Theden to tend the net.
Stillman Valley, which made it to the state finals in 2010 and the super-sectional in 2011, lost to Rockford Keith Country Day in the sectionals 4-0 on Oct. 16.