Waterloo on Thursday took its first step toward a repeat of its Class 2A state soccer championship from last season.
Senior all-stater Ben Huels knocked in a pair of goals in the second half as the top-seeded Bulldogs (16-3-3) blanked Alton Marquette 2-0 in the semifinals of the Columbia Regional.
“Of course, that’s the ultimate goal,” Waterloo coach Chad Holden said of winning state. “But we know it’s not easy. You’ve got to limit your mistakes every game. We can’t look ahead.”
Waterloo advanced to the championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday against third-seeded Columbia (16-2-4), which eliminated fifth-seeded Triad 2-0. The semifinals had been scheduled for Wednesday, but were postponed by rain.
Huels made it 1-0 less than one minute into the second half, scoring inside the left post on a perfect feed from senior Ryan Stites. Huels’ second goal came on a penalty kick at 44 minutes, 3 seconds, after sophomore Nolan Rick was fouled inside the top of the box.
“We moved the ball well,” said Huels, who has 27 goals. “As far as the first one, me and Stites were on the same page. He passed me the ball and I finished it. Stites played me a perfect ball.
“We didn’t play too well the first half. The second half, we started moving the ball and found a couple of goals and were able to possess. We were the better team, but Alton Marquette played us a good game. Our defense played well. We found a way to win.”
Turning up the ‘D’
Defense had been a sore spot for the Bulldogs in the last five games as they surrendered 14 goals. The shutout was Waterloo’s first since a 1-0 decision Sept. 26 at Mater Dei.
“We’ve been giving up a few goals in our last few games,” Holden said. “Defense wins games. If you don’t give up a goal, you’re not going to lose a game. Our defense knows how important they are and how well they’ve played for us all year. They came up big for us.
“Every team goes through phases. Whatever level you’re at, you’ve got hot streaks and you’ve got cold streaks. Sometimes you don’t have a clue what it is. It’s part of sports.”
Huels didn’t get all of his penalty kick, but connected well enough to slip it past Explorers sophomore goalie Nick Hemann.
“That’s obviously not where I wanted to put it,” Huels, with a faint smile, said of his ground-ball shot. “But it worked out well. A goal’s a goal.”
Explorers’ season ends
Marquette (12-7-2), which lost 7-0 to the Bulldogs in the Columbia Sectional championship game last season, had difficulty mounting any kind of attack. The Explorers finished with three shots, including just one in the second half when sophomore Chris Hartrich’s low drive was easily scooped by Waterloo freshman keeper Sam Ward.
“I would attribute (our lack of offense) to their size in the back,” Explorers coach Jeremy Sanfilippo said. “They limited our speed. They put bodies on our guys. We had some early opportunities. Aaron Boulch and Zach (Weinman) both were kind of bodied off.
“We kept (Huels) under wraps in the first half. We came out with the same game plan in the second half. That first goal kind of slipped in there. That’s what he does.”
Freshman answers call
Ward started his third consecutive game in goal because of the absence of senior Trevor Coplin, who is serving a four-game suspension. Coplin will return in the Waterloo Sectional on Tuesday if the Bulldogs win the championship at Columbia.
“I think he’s done great,” Holden said of Ward. “His first game, he had about a 30-minute notice, ‘Hey, you’re going in.’ His face was like, ‘What?’ He’s done great. He’s a freshman and he’s really stepped up for us. He’s done a great job back there.”