The Gibault Hawks and Normal University High offer an interesting study in similarities.
The perennially strong teams will meet in the semifinals of the Class 1A boys state soccer tournament at 7 p.m. Friday at EastSide Centre in Peoria.
The Hawks (15-7-1), who won the 1A championship three years ago in Normal, rely on three primary scorers in seniors Ben Mueth (22 goals, four assists), Dalton Scace (12 goals, 12 assists) and Kyle Rocca (10 goals, 10 assists), a transfer from Georgia.
The Pioneers (15-6-5), too, have three go-to players in sophomores Nathan Clay (28 goals, five assists), J.D. Kelley (14 goals, 19 assists) and Cayden Redd (13 goals, nine assists).
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Defensively, both teams have been staunch during five postseason games. Gibault has surrendered one goal, while Normal U. High has permitted two.
Despite being small schools, both teams regularly play Class 2A and Class 3A competition.
Gibault faced Collinsville, Edwardsville, O’Fallon, Alton and the other three Southwestern Conference teams, which play in Class 3A, along with defending Class 2A state champion Waterloo, Columbia and St. Louis University High.
The Pioneers played Springfield, perhaps the best 2A team in the state, Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, Rochester, Quincy Notre Dame, Normal, Normal West, East Moline United and Peoria Notre Dame, which finished second in the 2A state tournament last year.
“I think they’re the most similar team to us up there,’” Gibault coach Matt Reeb said. “They play a difficult schedule. They don’t play a ton of 1A games. They challenge themselves.
“They’ll be poised and well-coached. They play a younger team, but they play a very similar style to us. I’m expecting a good game, for sure.”
Pioneers coach Jeremy Stanton agrees.
“It’s going to be a really good game,” said Stanton, a 1997 graduate of U. High who’s in his 10th season as coach. “We’re both pretty similar. Both of us pack our schedules in the regular season with a lot of 2A and 3A schools. We’re both battle-tested, and not a lot of teams can say that. We only played two 1A teams during our regular season.
“So we’re not going to see anything we didn’t see in the regular season. We’ve played some top, top teams. We’re definitely used to that type of competition.”
If there’s one advantage the Hawks might possess, it’s in the experience department. Reeb starts six seniors; the Pioneers start three seniors and have five on their roster.
“We have a good mixture of underclassmen and upperclassmen,” Reeb said. “But our sophomores are very good players, too, so I’m assuming their sophomores are as well. Experience-wise, we might have (an edge).”
Gibault also earned state titles in 2005, 2006 and 2007 under former coach Jim Corsi. The Pioneers are in the state tournament for the fourth time, but it’s their first appearance at state since 2001. Normal U. High placed third in the Class A tournament in 1998.
The Gibault-U. High will face Westchester St. Joseph or Bloomington Cornerstone Christian Academy for the championship at 5 p.m. Saturday. Westchester St. Joseph and Cornerstone Christian Academy meet in the other semifinal at 5 p.m. Friday.
U. High defeated Cornerstone Christian Academy 4-2 in the regular season.
Scouting the Pioneers
Forwards Clay and Kelley and midfielder Redd drive U. High. Clay scored from Kelley in the Pioneers’ 1-0 win over Elgin St. Howard on Tuesday in the Hinckley-Big Rock Super-Sectional.
“We’re aware of them,” Reeb said of Clay, Kelley and Redd. “From what we can tell, they’re good players on film. It’s going to be a tough test, but it will be a good test.”
Stanton said all three players already are receiving interest from colleges.
“For sophomores, you couldn’t ask for a better trio, and we’ve got them for two more years after this,” Stanton said. “I suspect they will be getting some looks from bigger schools.”
Junior Christian Lopez is U. High’s goalie. Playing in front of him is a veteran defense led by seniors Matt Mosele, Ryan Poland and Jason Lenz, along with junior Matt Mier.
“Our defense, knock on wood, lately has been playing really well,” Stanton said. “That wasn’t the case throughout our season. We’ve had some ups and downs with the defense.”
Scouting the Hawks
Mueth, Scace and Rocca will draw the majority of the attention from the Pioneers defense, although sophomore Karson Huels’ playmaking ability sparks the Hawks’ offense. Huels, despite a sore left knee, has a team-high 13 assists to go with seven goals.
“They’ve got a very nice attacking game, with a lot of players that can put it in the back of the net,” Stanton said. “It’s something we’re going to have to deal with.”
Reeb is confident his back line of seniors Ryan Gool and Jacob Hooser on the wings and juniors Aaron Grohmann and Robert Lugge in the middle can subdue the Pioneers.
Sophomores Logan Doerr and Adams Stearns are defensive midfielders, and senior Trevor Davis has shined in goal with 14 shutouts and a 1.13 goals-against average.
“I think we’ve been defending very well,” Reeb said. “We’ve been very organized. Knowing where (the Pioneers’) best players are and being organized in that sense is going to be important, but as a whole, we’re not going to change anything. We’ve been very solid to get here and we’re going to continue to do what we do.”
Fun fact I
Gibault and U. High played one another in the regular season for five straight years, but the contract was terminated at the end of the 2007 season.
The Hawks won three of the five games: 1-0 in 2005, 2-1 in 2006 and 4-2 in 2007. The Pioneers won the first two games of the series, 3-1 in 2003 and 4-0 in 2004.
“Distance-wise, it didn’t make much sense to travel all the way down there and then have them (come) up here,” Stanton said. “We stopped the contract, but we always had great games with them. It was a very competitive game, with two good teams going at it. But we stopped it and we haven’t seen them since.”
Fun fact II
Stanton excelled in soccer at basketball at U. High. He spurned soccer, his favorite sport, because the University of Evansville offered him a full basketball scholarship.
Stanton played four years under former Purple Aces coach Jim Crews and still owns program records for most assists in a game (15) and a career (601). Stanton was a junior in 1999 when Evansville won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship.