By Pedro Velazco
— This is what Northwestern’s boys soccer team has been waiting for. This week, this opportunity.
Heading into today’s Class A Tipton Regional game against Crawfordsville, the Purple Tigers are relishing the chance to make waves at this level after losing in the opening round to Guerin Catholic last season. Northwestern (15-2) has seven more wins than it did at this point last year. The Tigers meet the Athenians (12-6) at 5 p.m. today. The teams didn’t meet in the regular season. The second semifinal pits Muncie Burris (15-2) vs. Class A No. 1 Guerin Catholic (16-0-1) at approximately 7 p.m.
“They’re really enjoying this week. There’s a lot of excitement and they’re having a good time, but they’re working hard at the same time,” NW coach Jim Wagner said. He noted the team’s group spirit as a strength. “The guys, you could just feel the energy [at the sectional]. They wanted it so badly that that’s going to be different for us this year is the desire to win is in everybody, and they’re really going to do everything they can to make sure it happens.
“It’s a lot of fun when you see the guys. I mentioned before, I’m not having to push them. They want me to push more, they want more difficult things to do in practice. They’re looking forward to the more difficult challenge this week in regionals.”
First up for the Purple Tigers is an unknown element in Crawfordsville. It will take a feeling-out process to determine how best to defend and attack the Athenians.
“They have a group of guys that put up the goals for them, there’s not necessarily one guy,” Wagner said. “Jose Cortez is maybe their main guy. We’ll certainly have to keep our eyes on him. We expect it’ll be a good team effort. We’re not going to key on any one or two people. We’ll have to play everybody pretty evenly until we determine who are their main threats.”
Cortez leads Crawfordsville with 11 goals and is co-high with Josue Cardenas with six assists. Joel Monroe has eight goals.
“What it’s going to take [to win] is a solid effort from everybody, offense and defense making sure that we’re playing together as a unit. We’ve been doing that so I think the guys are pretty fired up that we’ve got a pretty good chance to make something happen,” Wagner said. “Right now we’re playing our best soccer and I think the guys feel that and are pretty excited about it.”
The in-season improvements that stand out strongest to Wagner is how the team has begun to learn to defend collectively.
“The guys are doing a great job of staying together, supporting each other, making sure there’s always someone there to back each other up if someone makes a mistake,” Wagner said. “The other thing we didn’t have early on was the midfield coming back to help the defense and push the ball forward. We’re seeing that now where all four midfielders are coming back ... instead of hanging out too far forward, putting pressure on our defense.”
Carroll and Peru head north to Caston after winning sectional titles. The Cougars (13-6) face No. 16 Argos (17-1-1) in today’s opener at 5 p.m., followed by Peru (11-5-2) vs. Oak Hill (14-2-1) at approximately 7.
Carroll and Argos didn’t meet in the regular season.
“From what I can tell they lost the first game of the year and have not lost since,” Carroll coach Dave Falkenberg said. “But the way I look at it, we need to control what we can control and play solid defense, and our defense played very well in sectionals. I really think if we can play solid defense and finish a corner kick or throw in — those are two areas we’re trying to focus on this week. If we can finish a corner or a throw in, I think we can win that first game.”
Argos was the regional champion last year in a field that included Peru and Oak Hill. Carroll is the only change from last year, upending 2011 sectional champ West Lafayette in a penalty shootout during the semifinal round at Benton Central last week. The Cougars then beat Faith Christian in overtime to take the title.
“I guess the big thing is just believing that it can happen,” Falkenberg said. “We were so close last year and we lost nine seniors, but we had a lot of people that came back from last year’s team and came in this year with the sole purpose of winning that sectional. In a lot of ways right now we’re like this is uncharted territory, this is our first ever [regional] and why not keep going? One of our motivations is our girls softball team. They had not really done a whole lot for years, and then last year won the sectional, won the regional and made it to semistate.
“We know Argos is pretty good, but I think we believe in ourselves that we can keep going.”
Justin Willoughby leads the team with 14 goals and 12 assists. Elliot Packard has 12 goals and six assists. Eric Miller has 11 goals.
Colin Quin leads Peru with 13 goals and 10 assists. Connor MacDonald has 10 goals.