By Keith Knepp
MISHAWAKA — The No. 8 (2A) NorthWood boys soccer program officially entered uncharted waters around 8:30 p.m. Saturday evening, Oct. 17, 2020.
It was then that the final whistle blew to signal the end of the regional championship match between the Panthers and the Indians of South Bend St. Joseph with the scoreboard reading 2-1 in favor of the boys in black. The win, contested at Mishawaka Marian High School, earned NorthWood a birth in the 2A final four for Indiana boys soccer.
NorthWood had its tournament path smoothed on Friday afternoon when the IHSAA announced that their scheduled regional semi-final opponent, Hammond Clark, had resigned itself from the state 2A tournament due to COVID-19 issues. The Pioneers had a tumultuous 2020 season, perhaps unrivaled by any other program in the country. Because of restrictions placed on its fall athletic programs by the School City of Hammond, the district within which Clark resides, the team was only able to begin practices in mid-September, several weeks after other schools in the state had begun their seasons.
IHSAA rules require players to have a certain number of official practices before they can begin competition, which meant that the Pioneers were only able to play two regular season matches, both losses, before the state tournament began. In a turn of fortune, Clark won all three of its sectional matches to advance to its first-ever regional with an unorthodox and unprecedented 3-2 record.
Eager to replicate their sectional good fortune, the other shoe dropped on the team on Friday, officially ending their season and giving NorthWood an unexpected bye into the championship match. It was easy to see the advantage it would give to the Panthers as they not only got an automatic pass, but they didn’t have to expend the energy and emotion that is necessary to even get to the evening’s final.
That luxury wasn’t bestowed upon St. Joseph as they battled in an 11 a.m. match against No. 4 West Lafayette. In what was undoubtedly a draining 80 minutes of play, the Indians bested the Red Devils by the slimmest of margins, 1-0, to earn their ticket to the evening’s grand finale.
For all but two minutes of the first half, the Indians and Panthers played to a draw. The events that led to one of the two goose eggs being shattered started when St. Joe defender Jose Nahar earned a yellow card after a hard foul inside his team’s goal box in the 38th minute of the match. Panther star Sebastian Guillen fired the ensuing penalty kick past the Indians’ keeper and into the bottom left corner of the frame to take a 1-0 lead into the break.
Seven minutes into the the second stanza, St. Joe came up with a set piece of their own when senior Ryan David took a free kick opportunity following a Panther foul and found paydirt past NorthWood goalie Andrew Graber. The equalizer seemed to give new life to the team in white as well as their faithful on the south end of the bleachers.
The Indian euphoria lasted all of three minutes, however, as NorthWood found its second tally of the match, one that would provide the contest’s final 2-1 score. In that 50th minute of the contest, Guillen launched a corner kick from the left side that sailed beautifully into the near half of the goal box where a streaking Chase Duerksen beautifully headed the ball past a befuddled St. Joe keeper.
NorthWood (14-3-3) managed to fend off the Indians for the remaining 30 minutes of the match, earning the Panther program its first ever regional championship. St. Joe ended their 2020 campaign at 8-6-3.
“I’m so proud of this team. It’s the first group of young men who came up through the Pumas soccer program (the Nappanee/Wakarusa club soccer program),” said Panther skipper Brad Duerksen. “It was a special moment as a father and coach to see Chase score the game winner off of a beautiful header. This team continues to just amaze the coaching staff. I’m very proud of the entire program during this record breaking season!”
Next up for NorthWood is a semi-state berth against unranked Fort Wayne Canterbury (12-4-5) with an invitation to the state championship match on the line. The game will be contested at 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, in South Bend at, ironically, St. Joseph High School.