Wheeling came out of nowhere, a team largely unknown and unheralded after winning just eight games a year ago.
On the biggest stage, the Wildcats proved their toughness and resolve despite falling behind a quality Edwardsville team.
The top-ranked Wildcats surrendered two goals seven minutes apart late in the first half and then watched their spirited and intense rally fall just short as Edwardsville survived for the 2-1 Class 3A state title Saturday night at Hoffman Estates.
Playing for the first soccer state title in school history, the Wildcats (23-2-2) saw their 12-game winning streak on a windy and cool night. Edwardsville won its second state title in the program’s history, previously winning the Class AA title in 2000.
Wheeling was uncharacteristically off at the start, and Edwardsville took advantage. Junior midfielder Landon Paul blasted a sharp ball from about 25 yards out in the 33rd minute for the game’s opening score.
The crucial score came in the 40th minute. After a disputed foul against Wheeling, Edwardsville star senior forward Brent Heinlein drilled a free kick from the top of the box into the left corner for the devastating second goal.
“I thought in the first half, we were a little slow in getting started and finding out rhythm, but you have to credit [Edwardsville] for having a solid, organized team,” Wheeling coach Ed Uhrik said.
Wheeling keeper Gary Mendoza recorded six saves for the Wildcats. He made several striking plays. “We had a couple of mistakes,” he said, “and those couple of mistakes cost us.”
The second half belonged to the Wildcats.
Sun-Times Player of the Year Jose Garcia was again the catalyst. After being bottled up by having four different Edwardsville players shadow him in the first half, he operated more cleanly in the second half. In the 46th minute, he was credited for an assist as Ivan Mancilla rebounded his free kick from about 28 yards out that Edwardsville keeper Brenden Heaton made a diving stop of.
In the 55th minute, Garcia electrified the crowd when he sliced through five defenders and hit an off-balanced shot that Heaton made a diving deflection on. “I was already falling, and I couldn’t get the power I wanted to get,” he said. In the 79th minute, Garcia also had a rare header that Heaton blocked.
Behind Garcia, Wheeling controlled possession for 80 percent of the second half.
“I picked up the paper, and I saw that Garcia was the Player of the Year, and I can see why,” Edwardsville coach Mark Heiderscheid said. “He’s a special player.”
Garcia registered six shots as Wheeling massed 13 shot attempts to the Tigers’ eight. With the one-goal lead, Edwardsville packed in its backline and offered Wheeling very small windows to connect on passes.
“The organization they had in the back was key for them,” Garcia said. “They were calm and composed the whole time. They’re a very good team.”
Wheeling made its own history. The sting remained. “It hurts right now because we thought we were the best team in the state in the last month,” Uhrik said.
“I challenged the guys to step up and persevere, and that’s what they did. Some of the players apologized to me after the game, but I told them they had nothing to be sorry about.”