By Keith Knepp
SYRACUSE — Last year’s soccer season came to a heartbreaking and disappointing end in South Bend for the NorthWood boys soccer team. In what proved to be long-time head coach Brad Duerksen’s final game on the Panther sideline, the Panthers lost on penalty kicks to Fort Wayne Canterbury, leaving the team one win short of playing for a class 2-A state title.
To be certain, this year’s squad had a much different feel to it. Gone in 2021 was the captain trifecta of Sebastian Guillen, Andre de Freitas and Kayden Newcomer. Also departed was the steady presence of goalkeeper Andrew Graber, who also was lost to graduation.
Replacing them in 2021 were the less familiar names of Joey Eshelman, Michael Hahn, Aiden Greenlee and Trent Iwema. As new head coach and former Duerksen assistant Kyle Dijkstra admitted, everyone knew that this would be a rebuilding year for the very young Panthers, who only will be graduating four players from this year’s roster, including starters Eshelman, Hahn and Kaleb Eberle, along with valuable reserve Aiden Schrock.
In the opening game of Sectional 20 at Wawasee, NorthWood uttered its first “abracadabra” in its efforts to duplicate the magic of 2020. Facing an unfamiliar foe in Garrett, a team it somehow has not faced since the IHSAA placed the two schools in the same sectional when it moved from two to three classes for the 2017. By the end of the match, Garrett likely wished they had a different draw, as NorthWood would walk away with an 8-0 whitewash.
For the first 19 minutes, it seemed as though the match would be a close one. Neither team was able to do much offensively, aside from a few shots that didn’t prove overly difficult for either keeper. At the 21:23 mark on the clock, NorthWood would break through when junior Joel Guzman was challenged by the Railroader keeper 11 yards in front of the goal. Guzman was able to poke the ball past him to earn the first tally of the match.
Five minutes later, Garrett had a chance to take back the momentum when they earned a direct kick just outside the 18. NorthWood keeper Trent Iwema blocked the shot but wasn’t able to get a firm handle on the ball, which bounded away, leaving him out of position. The Railroader follow-up shot hit the outside of the side net, keeping the score at 1-0.
Two minutes after that, NorthWood freshman Dominic De Freitas knocked one in from 22 yards out to push the needle further in the Panthers’ direction. A pair of Solomon Yegon goals would move the score to 4-0 in favor of NorthWood.
Garrett would finally find the net with 3:11 left in the first half, but unfortunately for them it was into their own goal, leaving them in a deep 5-0 hole going into the break.
The NorthWood onslaught would continue into the second half, with senior co-captain Michael Hahn hitting from distance 13 minutes into the second stanza.
Garrett would once again pot an own goal two minutes later, giving the Panthers a 7-0 advantage.
Freshman Bryce Knepp would get the final NorthWood goal on the evening in the 75th minute, capping off a perfect night for the Panthers.
Iwema and Trace Roa would combine for a clean sheet for NorthWood, who will move on to play West Noble at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the first sectional semifinal. The second semi will feature NECC foes Angola and Lakeland.
it was a good performance all around, even from the guys who came in and got some minutes at the end there,” said Dijkstra. “I’m very happy with the result. The boys came out and they were ready. I was worried in the beginning when they weren’t finishing some of the chances and worried about them maybe sneaking one in, but once we got going and got in the flow of things it all started coming together.”