NAPPANEE — Despite some close calls, Wawasee’s boys were riding a five-game losing streak heading into their Class 2-A NorthWood Sectional-opener with Garrett Wednesday night.
But that streak only made the Warriors hungrier, and they showcased their will to win in a 3-0 defeat of the Railroaders at Wellfield Park. They now advance to Saturday’s championship, scheduled for 2 p.m., opposite West Noble, a 4-1 winner over Angola in Wednesday’s early semifinal.
“Our guys have been putting in the hard work, and that’s what I’ve had to tell them — I’ve had to tell them ‘It’s hard to put in the hard work when we’re not seeing any results,’” said Wawasee coach Jordan Sharp. “I’m just really proud of the guys that it’s paying off when it counts. It feels good to move past Garrett. Two years ago they came to our place and beat us in the sectional championship, and that was not fun. So it feels good to win and gain some momentum going into Saturday. This is just like we planned — getting the clean sheet and everything — so feeling good for it.”
“The regular season was tough, didn’t really go as planned. It was a very long process for us, and we had to really think it out and really figure out what we were going to do to get us back on track and get a win,” explained senior striker Chris Pena. “All it took was believing — believing in ourselves and coming together as a team and wanting it more than the other team does.”
Pena put in some big time heroics for his team with a hat trick under the lights at Wellfield.
He ended a scoreless stalemate in the 23rd minute when junior Caleb Young served him a through ball from midfield, which he dribbled in very close before cooly putting it past Garrett keeper Kaleb Samons to stake his team to a 1-0 lead. Immediately after the goal, Pena pointed to the sky — an homage to brother and 2014 Wawasee grad Michael Pena, who passed at the young age of 21 in 2017.
“This performance was dedicated to my brother. Every performance I do is dedicated to my brother, RIP,” said Pena. “This is my last year, and I didn’t want it to end this soon. I had to give it all I had, bring it for the team and show out as captain.”
Pena ripped another shot on goal less than four minutes later, but Samons was able to save that attempt to keep the margin at one goal headed into the break. But Pena struck again just eight minutes into the second half on a run up the wing, driving the ball off of trailing Garrett defender Isaac Thrush and into the near side of the goal to push the Warriors out to a 2-0 lead.
Still not satisfied, the Wawasee side continued to apply pressure on the Railroaders, and Pena broke through one last time in the 74th minute, finishing off an empty-netter beating Samons to a ball inside the box. Afterward, Pena showed some swagger, counting “1, 2, 3” on his fingers as he and teammates celebrated the backbreaker.
“Our plan going into tonight was wanting it more than they do. Being aggressive the whole game, pressuring the whole game and not letting up,” explained Pena.
“When we go that first goal we knew that we could not let up. We knew we had the momentum; we had the confidence.”
“Chris has always been a huge asset for us, ever since his freshman year. Everyone was like ‘Pena is going to be amazing,’ and I was like ‘I’ll believe in when I see it,’” teased Sharp. “It’s been four great years. Once of his harder years — I think he’s been struggling through some injuries and just some things. But when he’s 100 percent, he’s still just the threat that he can be. I know our team does rely on that a lot, and he came through tonight.”
Wawasee’s best defense was a good offense in the win over Garrett but its back line was stout on the few occasions the Railroaders were able to pressure. And the Warriors methodically built up out of their backfield in an impressive possession game as senior keeper Evan Dippon and the Wawasee defense earned the clean sheet in Nappanee.
“I’m just really proud of the back line and their hard work. I know the defense doesn’t always get the recognition, but they were moving the ball the best I’ve seen them all year and it’s just exciting to see them do that from the leadership in the back, from the goalkeeper all the way down the line,” said Sharp.
“I think we’re seeing some of the fruits of our labor where we’ve played a bunch of really hard NLC teams the last couple games, and now we’re playing maybe teams that aren’t quite as good and we’re maybe seeing this space that we didn’t see before so it’s fun. I think the guys are just pumped about things that they’re able to do.”
The Warriors now turn their attention to West Noble, which advanced via 2-1 upset of host NorthWood in the opening round before collecting a more comfortable, 4-1 win over Angola Wednesday night. Wawasee is playing for just a second-ever sectional championship, the program’s first and only to date coming in 2002. Sharp believes Pena will show up big again, and he knows the Chargers are going to have to worry about him. And he’s excited to see what his team can do.
“He does love stepping up for the big games, so moving on to Saturday, very excited for the big game because I think that he plays even bigger on big games. I know that they’re going to be worried about him running through their back line, so I’m excited to see what we can give them,” said Sharp.
Game time is 2 p.m.
LAKELAND CHRISTIAN 6, FORT WAYNE BLACKHAWK CHRISTIAN 3
Parker Stewart scored five goals, and LCA advanced past host Blackhawk at Class A Sectional 37 in Fort Wayne Wednesday night. The Cougars will play Lakewood Park Christian — a 3-0 winner over Wabash in Wednesday’s other semifinal — in Saturday’s championship at 2 p.m.
“Parker Stewart wasn’t going to let us lose tonight, five incredibly well taken goals were enough to see us through to the sectional final,” said LCA coach Daniel Miller. “Stewart also claimed his 100th career goal in today’s game. Blackhawk just couldn’t cope with his pace and technical ability. Brayden Lane and Michael Easterling played well in midfield, and Landen Paris and Landen Bremer helped organize our back line.”
Stewart struck first on an Oak Janaroen assist in the ninth minute, slotted away his second goal on a Brayden Lane helper int he 18th minute, then finished off an old-fashioned hat trick on another Janjaroen assist in the 30th minute to push his team out to a 3-0 cushion. Blackhawk cut its deficit to two goals at the half as Ethan McKown connected with Gabe Koehlinger for a goal in the 37th minute.
Stewart scored on an unassisted strike less than five minutes into the second half, however, and after Andrew Sheron’s goal in the 59th, Garrett McKeever made the scoresheet for the Cougars with his unassisted goal in the 64th minute. Robert Strong scored for BCS a minute later, but Brayden Lane found Stewart for the game’s final goal in the 67th minute as LCA converted six goals on 14 shots on goal.
Peter Koller finished with eight saves in goal as the Braves leveled 11 shots on frame in the loss.
Lakeland improves to 12-5 with the win heading into Saturday’s sectional championship rematch. The Cougars are happy for the chance of a reprisal after falling 6-0 to the Panthers early last month.
“We’re excited to get another chance to play Lakewood Park and play for a sectional championship. We didn’t play well in the first match-up against them, but we are playing much better now,” Miller said.
OTHER SECTIONAL SCORES
Here’s a look at some of Wednesday night’s other sectional scores from around the area:
Ridge 3, Concord 1
Central 1, Goshen 1 (EC on PKs)
CMA 4, Concordia 2
Manchester 4, Canterbury 0
At South Bend Adams
Plymouth 6, Michigan City 1
South Bend Adams 3, LaPorte 1