On to State!
The West Liberty High School boys soccer team moved one step closer to their dream of winning a state Class 1A title Wednesday night, May 26, shutting out Mid-Prairie in the Substate Championship game, 3-0, at Memorial Field.
The win puts the 15-3 Comets in the state tournament for the second time in three years after the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated their 2020 chances. It sent the town into pure celebration mode, the team getting a West Liberty Fire Department led several-block-long parade through the community following the hard-fought battle over the talented Hawks, who finished their season at 11-5, including a pair of shutouts at the hands of West Liberty.
Although the defense may have been the star of the game, it was Juan Mateo, a sophomore forward that not only put in the game-winning first goal early in the defensive outing, but added the clinching third goal with a header nearly midway through the second half.
Coach Walton Ponce said the objective was to score quickly early in the game and said his team nearly had another goal in the opening half that would have socked the game away. The visiting Hawks put a lot of players in the backfield on defense, making it “difficult to break,” according to Ponce, who said he anticipated that defense from Mid-Prairie.
Ponce said the second goal by his team, a rebound shot at 25:21 by senior middle fielder Ronald Guzman-Lopez, gave the Comets confidence. “We were I complete control of the game,” Ponce said in commenting on the second goal. If they pushed forward, it would have opened up things in their back for us to score. I thought they would push up trying to make a comeback but they truly never did push up.”
The game clincher came less than a minute later, Juan Mateo putting a ball into the left corner of the net with a header off a 20-yard line drive boot from his brother, senior Joshua Mateo at 24:32.
Ponce said the pair had never practices that kind of a shot. “We typically don’t like to put the ball in the air unless it’s toward the feet. I actually shouted to Josh to go ahead and send it though as I saw they werent looking for that.”
The younger Mateo scored the opening goal at 32:46, getting a shot over the head Hawk junior goalie Justice Jones after West Liberty came out soaring offensively, missing on two chances in the opening minutes. Mateo had another chance to score at 7:14 to put in another goal, just missing left and a Bryan Martinez-Zavala penalty boot just outside the circle sailed high as well for the Comets.
“It was our plan to be extra aggressive at the beginning to get a goal and dictate the tempo of the game,” the Comet coach said. “It worked out to perfection.”
Coach Ponce said his team had a lot of opportunities in the opening half, but failed to execute, something he said the team needs to “iron out” as they move into state play. Defensively, though, the Comets dominated. “What facilitated everything was having the ball. . . having the ball is our best defense,” he said.
Mid-Prairie coach Pat Cady said he felt he had West Liberty “razzled” by halftime, but knew he needed more offense, so he talked about changing some things defensively to create more points, but the plan backfired. “We went to a 4-4-2,” the coach said, calling it a “gamble” and asking his players to “leave it all out there.” He said the Hawks did just that and was proud of his team, but called the Comets a “good club” that plays so well together, anticipating passes and making plays. The M-P coach since 2013 said the different in his Hawks and the Comets is the fact so many of the West Liberty kids play year-round in club ball, unlike his own team who has a lot of four-sport athletes. He called the Comets “a very well organized team.”
Cady said he felt Iowa officials who set substate brackets failed in putting too many strong teams together, noting there is a lot of talented teams in the east central portion of the state, noting a team like Clarke shouldn’t have to travel three hours for a Substate game.
Ponce said he didn’t think Mid-Prairie gambled enough, his Comets controlling the ball more in the second half than they did in the first half. “It was win or go home,” he said, pointing out his West Liberty team was the aggressor.
The coach said he didn’t change a thing at halftime, keeping the same players in the game and continuing the game plan. “Defend and stop the counter attack and keep persistent with possession and quick combinations in the attacking third,” Ponce told his players. “Tactically, the boys had a flawless game. That is great because we will need that discipline and focus at state to win a state title.”