MONTICELLO — Biniam Lienhart and his Monticello boys’ soccer teammates entered last Tuesday’s Illini Prairie Conference match against rival St. Thomas More with a noteworthy bragging right.
The Sages last month received a No. 1 seed in the IHSA Class 1A playoffs.
The Sabers garnered a No. 2 seed within the same sectional.
“When we seeded, we were right there with STM when you look at the record,” Monticello coach Dan Burkybile said. “We got voted the one seed, so I think that kind of speaks to the respect we’ve earned among the area.”
Mere days after the seeding process, this regular-season contest offered Lienhart and friends an opportunity to prove those seeds had been distributed correctly.
“We came out here hungry, I’ll tell you that,” Lienhart said. “We’ve lost to them many times, so it’s nice to get a win.”
The Sages’ senior tallied a surprise goal fewer than six minutes into the match, setting the tone for the remainder of the afternoon and kickstarting a 3-1 victory over the Sabers.
“Good, tough win, and it helps for the playoffs because we’ll be playing teams like this,” Lienhart said. “It helps to win a game like this, so we know we can win.”
Monticello (13-3, 3-1 Illini Prairie) also bagged goals from junior Levi Stephens and senior Cohen Neighbors as they dominated ball possession for large portions of the affair versus STM (12-3, 3-1).
The Sages piled up 15 shots on goal and rarely allowed junior netminder Evan Henrard to feel pressure. On nearly all occasions in which the Sabers broke through with a run, Henrard was alert to the threat and cleared the ball before anything dangerous could transpire.
“We want to keep the ball and play out of the back,” Burkybile said. “(Junior defender) Jack Tanner leads that. He’s been phenomenal, and that kind of throws teams off balance ... and that kind of opens up space up front.”
Monticello’s first tally of the day was less about a pre-determined game plan and more about Lienhart using the elements to his benefit.
After dashing through a Sabers tackle attempt along the far sideline, Lienhart lofted the ball high in the air toward STM senior keeper Ryan Hendrickson.
With a stiff wind at Lienhart’s back, the ball continued to carry. Until it found the far top corner of the net, over the outstretched frame of the 6-foot-2 Hendrickson.
“I’m not going to lie to you, that was a cross,” Lienhart said with a smile. “I just watched it go through the air. Luckily, it went in the goal. The wind helped.”
Sabers coach Jake Sellett said his athletes weren’t brought down quite as much by that goal as the one that followed it.
In the 17th minute, Neighbors rose from a throng of athletes to head a loose ball into STM’s box. Both Lienhart and Stephens rushed toward it, leaving them essentially 2-on-1 with Hendrickson.
Hendrickson lunged right to stop a Lienhart bid, but it left him unable to corral the rebound shot from Stephens that dented the twine and staked Monticello to a 2-0 advantage.
“(The first goal) affected us a lot, but it shouldn’t,” Sellett said. “An experienced team should be able to get through that, and unfortunately, we let it snowball into the second one. The second one was the backbreaker, not the first one.”
The Sabers turned to senior speedster Moni Nwosu for a morale boost, and he came through with flying colors.
Seemingly out of nowhere in the 25th minute, Nwosu surged down the far sideline and dribbled the ball about three-fourths of the pitch’s distance. He cut inside and was met by a Sages tackle in the box.
Tanner initially was assessed a yellow card. In error, it turns out.
“(The lead official) carded the wrong guy,” Burkybile said. “He changed the yellow card to Biniam, and I didn’t tell Biniam because I didn’t want him to play any different.”
Regardless, Nwosu was granted a penalty shot that he converted to cut STM’s deficit in half.
The teams entered halftime maintaining that 2-1 score. Then, in the second half’s sixth minute, Tanner walloped a long free kick into the teeth of the wind.
It still managed to reach the box, where Neighbors deftly heel-kicked the ball just as it reached the grass to beat Hendrickson.
STM finally started to generate a little more offensive pressure as the clock wound down, with guys like Nwosu and senior Martin Mondala providing nifty passes to spring senior Cabott Craft.
But the Sabers couldn’t fully break Henrard or the defense in front of him.
“They support each other. They feed off each other,” Burkybile said of his players. “It’s just been fun to watch, because I feel like I don’t have to coach as much.”
STM has no time to wallow after this loss. The Sabers visit Bloomington Central Catholic on Thursday with a share of the league title on the line. BCC defeated Monticello earlier in the season to set up that situation.
Monticello can enjoy this signature triumph on the heels of a difficult previous week, in which the Sages suffered losses to BCC and Champaign Central.
“We’re capable of going deep (in the playoffs),” Lienhart said. “We’ve been playing pretty well, other than the couple losses we’ve had. These games, we’ve been playing tough and we’ve been going around teams.”
On Sept. 29, the host Sages wasted little time showing their offensive might, scoring six goals in the first half to take control in an eventual 9-1 nonconference win over Olympia.
Cohen Neighbors scored the first three goals for Monticello (14-3) in its third consecutive win and later assisted on two goals.
Lienhart chipped in two goals and two assists, while Stephens, Ben Williamson, Rylan Good and Jose Ocadiz also scored for the Sages.