Sports

Gators repeat as state champions

The pressure to repeat started shortly after Decatur won the state soccer championship last season.

On paper, the Gators were returning all but one starter from last year’s team. They were returning SPSL MVP Alex Chursky and 10 other seniors, half of whom are going on to play college soccer.

On paper, there was no reason why the Gators shouldn’t win another state championship. Except the game isn’t played on paper.

So when the Gators came back from a 2-1 second-half deficit to beat Lewis & Clark 3-2 in Saturday’s state title game, the release of pressure was volcanic.

Winning another championship was so expected, the high school moved the date of the senior prom to a month earlier so it wouldn’t conflict with the state title game. That was before the season even started.

“It was a wonderful gesture, but a month before the season starts, there’s no guarantee you’re going to be playing in the championship game,” Decatur coach Jimmy McAlister said.

As the season progressed, the Gators faced the challenge of keeping a two-year unbeaten streak alive. Also on the line was the prospect of a national championship, with the Gators being ranked in the top five all season by studentsports.com.

“Those kids were under a lot of pressure all year and they came through it,” McAlister said. “This year was much harder than last year. Things didn’t always go as planned. We were a target everywhere we went. The so-called streak was burdensome for the kids. The pursuit of a national championship was burdensome on the kids. We were playing against ourselves. Before a game we didn’t worry about strategy, we worked on getting ourselves prepared.

“At the end of this year it was more relief than joy. Last year was more joy. It was pretty much unexpected. We did well, we came into the final loosey goosey, we won and we were happy. This year after we won, it was a relief.”

After reaching the final four of the state playoffs last weekend, Decatur faced two stiff challenges to everything they had worked for this season. The first came in the semi-final on Friday, when the Gators couldn’t score after two overtime periods and faced a shootout against Auburn Riverside and UW-bound goalkeeper Chris Eylander.

The second came in the title game against Lewis & Clark, when the Gators trailed 2-1 with 25 minutes left in the game.

Both times, the Gators reached into the magic hat and escaped with a win. And so the celebration continued, as it has for 44-straight games. Even if the joy of winning was combined with a touch of relief.

Decatur 3, Lewis & Clark 2

A second state title seemed within reach for Decatur after it scored just 59 seconds into the championship game. Alex Chursky broke open down the left side and crossed the ball to senior Christian Scholze, who volleyed the ball off the right post and into the net.

The Gators continued to dominate for the first 20 minutes, peppering the Lewis & Clark goal with shots, including one by Scholze that hit the cross bar. But the Gators couldn’t capitalize on opportunities to put the game away.

“We started out like a house on fire,” McAlister said. “I thought if a few bounces would have gone our way, we could have ended it early.”

While dominating on the field, the Gators seemed to be lulled into a sense of false confidence. That caught them by surprise at the 25-minute mark, when LC junior midfielder Grant Lundberg broke away from his defender on the left side and put his shot away to the far post.

With that goal, the momentum swung to the Tigers as Decatur became increasingly frustrated. With three minutes left in the first half, LC midfielder Chris Dunford was pushed from behind inside the goal box, resulting in a penalty kick. Matt Ross scored to the right side to give LC a 2-1 lead. It was only the third time all season the Decatur defense had allowed two goals.

“Jimmy gave us a pep talk at half,” senior midfielder Nick McCluskey said. “For 11 of us, this was the last 40 minutes of our high school careers. The guys stepped it up.”

With 25 minutes left in the game, McAlister moved junior Kyle Colbath up from his defensive position to get more of an offensive threat.

About one minute later, McCluskey sent an indirect free kick into a wave of Decatur players. Chursky got a head on the ball and flicked it to Colbath, who scored on a header from point-blank range to tie the score at two goals apiece.

“We played good the first 10 minutes, then we lost our minds, I guess,” Colbath said. “We knew we had to pick it up the last 40 minutes. We couldn’t go out like this.”

Colbath didn’t get to play in last year’s final because of a broken wrist, but said he wanted to make up for it in Saturday’s game.

“Colbath was as good as usual,” McAlister said. “He’s scored some big goals for us this year. He’s got a college future. Fortunately, he’s got one year of high school left.”

After the goal, the momentum swung back into Decatur’s favor. With new-found life, the Gators continued the offensive pressure and were often fouled in the process.

“There was that stretch there where we started giving up fouls and set pieces,” LC coach Kenny Krestian said. “They’re a good team and they came out and forced the issue. They upped the tempo on us.”

Four minutes after tying the game, the Gators converted another free kick. This time it was 30 yards out from the left side, as Zach Norwood lobbed the ball into the box and Chursky was there for the go-ahead header to give Decatur a 3-2 lead.

“We’re very good on set pieces,” McAlister said. “In the end of the day, what won it for us was our superiority in the air. I don’t think their defenders were able to deal with that kind of aerial assault. Colbath is 6-foot-3 and Chursky is 6-2 and they’re good in the air.”

Chursky hit the cross bar with another shot two minutes later, but the Gators didn’t need any more goals to hang on for the win.

“The strength of our team this year was the senior leadership,” McAlister said. “We talked about the seniors needing to come out in the final and have a big game. They did. When you get to the final game, you want to lean on your experience and the kids who have been there. Christian started it and Chursky finished it off.”

After allowing four shots on goal in the first half, the Decatur defensive unit of Will Craig, Jason Bressler, Norwood and Colbath didn’t allow a shot in the second half.

“We were disappointed in the way we were playing and we knew we had to pick it up,” Bressler said. “It showed what kind of character we have.”

“We started well then got complacent that we had it,” Norwood said. “We kind of lost the flow, but getting all those free kicks helped. It’s nice to have Alex. He’s a big, tall guy. I’m glad I play with him and not against him.”

“We kind of put ourselves in a nightmare after they scored,” Craig said. “But it made the victory that much more sweet. For us being seniors after we all played growing up together, this is quite the way to finish.”

Decatur 1, Auburn Riverside 0

(Decatur won 4-3 in shootout)

After 80 minutes of regulation time and two 5-minute overtime periods, neither team had scored in the semi-final game. In fact, in regulation time, each team managed just one shot directly on goal.

That played into the hands of Auburn Riverside, which was content to take its chances in a shootout, considering it has one of the top goalkeepers in the state in Chris Eylander.

But it was Decatur’s sophomore goalkeeper Kyle Bressler who ended up being the hero of the day.

After three straight Decatur players couldn’t score in the shootout, Bressler saved four out of the last five Auburn Riverside shots to help Decatur win the game.

“Kyle was huge,” McAlister said. “We were on the ropes there. The kid shocked me. I think the only one in the stadium he didn’t shock was himself.”

“We do penalty kicks in practice, but you mainly have to guess and hope you get it right,” Kyle Bressler said. “I knew I had to step it up. I usually don’t get nervous for stuff like this, but man, I was nervous.”

The feat is even more impressive considering the shooter has the advantage in a penalty kick situation and scores about 80 percent of the time. Bressler turned those odds around, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for Decatur.

“He’s always had that growing up,” Jason Bressler said of his younger brother. “He has that little intuition that he knows what is going to happen next. He has it in every sport he plays.”

After Norwood opened the shootout with a goal, three-straight Decatur players couldn’t score — two were blocked by Eylander and one hit the post.

At that point, if Auburn Riverside scored another goal in two more chances or Decatur missed another shot, Auburn Riverside would have won the game and advanced to the state finals.

But Decatur came back with goals by Alex Chursky, Nick McCluskey and Kyle Colbath to win the game.

The only other time Kyle Bressler had faced a shootout in his high school career was last year, when he was a ninth-grader and helped Decatur win in the SPSL championship game against Auburn.

“Both times he’s been in a shootout he’s been unbelievable,” McAlister said. “He’s great on his line. He has cat-quick reaction. I really think it’s from wrestling. He saved it for us.”

Decatur finished the season 20-0-2. In the past three years, the Gators have 58 wins, one loss and 5 ties, including that still unbroken 44-game unbeaten streak.

“At times it was motivation and at times it was something they had to live up to and it’s a little bit unfair,” McAlister said of the streak. “Everybody in their job is entitled to a bad day. Game after game, 44 in a row, we never gave up a result. That’s pretty impressive. We didn’t talk much about that this weekend, but as the kids sit back and the months and years go by, that was a pretty special run.”

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