Sages soccer

CHAMPAIGN — It had been 363 days since Normal U-High bounced Monticello boys’ soccer out of the Class 1A playoffs with a 3-1 sectional semifinal win on October 20, 2021.

Revenge appeared on the horizon 47 minutes into Wednesday’s rematch in yet-another 1A sectional semifinal, when Monticello junior Levi Stephens chipped in a point-blank goal at the left post to give the Sages a 1-0 lead.

But as a stiff breeze lasted through the final horn at the soccer field behind St. Thomas More High School, the Sages’ lead did not.

Conner Dunne and Cooper Stengel scored goals in the final 11 minutes of the second half to clinch a 2-1 win for the Pioneers (12-11-4), who will face Bloomington Central Catholic or tournament host STM for a sectional title at 4 p.m. on Friday.

Monticello’s season ended with a 19-5 record.

“I told my guys, ‘I’m proud of the way they fought,’” Monticello head coach Dan Burkybile said. “(U-High) is a very physical team that has a tough schedule, so they play with some big schools. In my mind, they’re a big school, you know, so for us to battle and really go toe-to-toe, I thought we were the better team (Wednesday). It just didn’t check out that way (with the final) score.”

A crowd of 125 spectators huddled in hats and hoodies and watched as a tense match unfolded under a sunny sky in Champaign.

Neither side emerged to a particularly strong start. The Pioneers were slightly more aggressive after the opening kickoff, but the Sages’ offense responded midway through the first frame and picked up the pace.

Both teams traded the ball along the middle of the field for most of the opening half while the wind was at Monticello’s back.

“I debated back and forth whether to take the wind or not,” Burkybile said. “I think neither team played the wind very well, to be honest. So you know, I think it was more even just the bounce of the ball and the field conditions really kind of just hurt us to really get going.”

Monticello’s best chance to score in the opening frame came on an indirect free kick with just north of three minutes to play. Jack Tanner dished a pass to Ben Williamson that was sent high and wide to the right.

Both goalkeepers played well as Monticello’s Evan Henrard and U-High’s Noah Grieshaber preserved a first-half shutout.

“(Henrard’s) been solid all year, he made great saves in the regional final against Uni High,” Williamson said. “There’s nothing he could do about those two goals they got on us. It was one-on-one. I’m not putting anything on him. He had a great season and a great playoffs.”

Stephens’ goal came seven minutes into the second half when he cleaned up a ricochet off Grieshaber and entered a slide to knock the ball in just into the net.

Twenty-two minutes passed before the Pioneers made it even. The score held.

“Monticello played really well,” U-High coach Jeremy Stanton said. “Toward the end there, we pushed numbers up, you know, we went (with) three defenders in the back but three up top to give us a little bit more offense, found a couple (of scores) late which was key.”

The Sages have ascended toward the top of the Illini Prairie Conference under Burkybile, who took over as head coach in 2013. With 19 wins, Monticello finished tied for the second-most wins in program history.

“Record-wise, this is one of the top teams I’ve coached,” Burkybile said. “I told them to be proud of that. We played some really good teams, fought really hard and a regional championship is something to be proud of. I’m proud of these guys and I think it’s one of the best teams I’ve coached.”

Trending Food Videos