WOOD RIVER — The Metro East Lutheran Knights are heating up at the right time.
After going 0-12 through the season, the Knights now own their first winning streak. They bested crosstown rival Father McGivney 1-0 on Thursday and then notched their biggest win on Saturday. Metro bested East Alton-Wood River 3-0 in the play-in game of the Class 1A Marquette Regional at Wood River Soccer Park, earning a showdown with the top-seeded and host Explorers at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at Gordon Moore Park. It was the Knights' first postseason win since 2013.
MELHS improved to 2-12, while EA-WR concludes its season at 3-14-1.
All three goals for the Knights came in the first half, the first two off the foot of Abby Yurchuk, the third came from Hannah Landers. They then staved off late pressure by the Oilers to preserve the win and the shutout.
“The first half we came out just like we finished against Father McGivney, which seemed to work out, so I said, 'Hey, why change it,'” MELHS head coach Noah Enke said. “We came out strong and I said, 'Ladies if we want it, let's go get it because it's now or never.'”
While the Knights came out strong, the same couldn't be said for EA-WR. A sluggish start proved to be the Achilles' Heel for the Oilers, despite a more energized second half.
“We just couldn't finish,” EA-WR head coach Matt Herndon said. “The same thing happened to Father McGivney the other day and they ended up losing 1-0. We outshot them 19-6, but they took advantage of opportunities and we couldn't.”
Yurchuk changed the score in the 12th minute for Metro. Landers found her about 20 yards out on a sort of fluky goal that got by Oiler goalie Becca Richards, giving the Knights a 1-0 lead.
“Hannah passed it into the middle and I just got around the girl and I didn't realize I had an open shot,” Yurchuk said. “I just kicked it and it went right in the corner. Noah told me to keep the ball down and in the corners, so that's what I did.”
Yurchuk struck again in the 24th minute. This time she received a pass from Suze Jezek and dribbled in past the EA-WR defense and ripped a shot from around 20 yards out again. The shot went high into the wind and fell into the back of the net to give MELHS a 2-0 cushion.
“I got control and I kicked it right over (Richards) head, because I knew the wind was against me and in her favor, but I knew if I got it up high it would go down faster,” Yurchuk said.
It was the 40th minute when the Knights became very comfortable. Landers dribbled in and shot across the goal, placing her score low along the left post. Yurchuk was credited with the assist.
That's the way it stayed entering the break and taking a 3-0 lead was a load of Enke's back.
“Having three goals is definitely a good cushion,” he said with a grin.
Herndon gave a stern halftime speech to the Oilers and it seemed to work, as they returned to the field with more intensity.
“I got on them for doing things they weren't supposed to be doing and they knew they shouldn't be doing,” Herndon said. “They knew they should be playing better and they shouldn't have given up those three goals.”
EA-WR's Brittany Grayson had a great chance in the 65th minute. She fired a high crossing shot, but it got caught in the wind and curved wide of the goal.
Freshman Kara Crutchley had opportunities in the 78th and 79th minute in a scramble late for the Oilers. She fired a crossing shot that just went wide and then pushed past the goalie on her final chance, but the MELHS defense was there to smother her shot.
“The ball did not want to roll our way today,” Herndon said. “Shot after shot, it was rolling just wide, but give them credit, they played well. They played well enough to win.”
Maybe the most strategic move was to shift Yurchuk and Landers to the MELHS defense and sacrifice offense for the shot to preserve the first-half lead.
“I would have done the same thing, it's the smartest thing to do. Yurchuk is their best player by far and she did an excellent job,” Herndon said. “She played strong and she's a very good player. I'm glad she's a senior.”
Now the Knights will turn their attention to hurdling a major obstacle in Marquette on Tuesday. The Explorers are 9-9-3 and always a top-tier team in the 1A playoffs. Marquette beat Metro 7-0 in the regular season meeting for the teams in Edwardsville on April 28.
“You just have to be tough against them,” Enke said. “You definitely can't stab in on them, you've got to play tight defense, really communicate and make sure you mark up their runs and you've got to be ready for pretty much anything. You've got to be ready for almost as perfect soccer as we're going to get in our little region here.”
Yurchuk added, “I think we can use these two wins to our advantage. With these two wins I think going into practice next week we're going to be excited and we want to keep going and we're going to push as hard as we can to get past Marquette.”