Bennett from the Bleachers: From first State playoff win to first State Championship, soccer team immortalizes itself in WGHS history

Bennett Durando
Sports Columnist

Bennett_Column Black & WhiteAs junior Sheriden Smith broke down the field toward the sideline nearest Webster’s student section, all the years of “not enough,” of “nowhere close,” of “maybe next year” blew away into the cold air with the screams of the Webster faithful.

When Smith finally went down under a hard tackle that earned Glendale a yellow card, the clock stood still reading 10.3. At last everyone could rejoice.

The 2014 Statesmen are State champions.

This soccer team completed its championship journey with a 1-0 shutout of Glendale (Springfield) High School on Saturday Nov. 15, at Blue Springs South HS.

The Statesmen did it after having won a District championship only once in the program’s history. That came 27 years ago.

They did it after never having won a State playoff game until this year’s round of 16, when Smith scored twice in the final 18 minutes to beat St. Mary’s 2-0.

They did it after reaching the Final Four for the first time in program history, behind junior John Conley’s pair of goals at Selma Field against Poplar Bluff, another 2-0 winner.

They did it after seemingly being “Ladue-d” in the semifinal versus Smith-Cotton. Two goals in a five minute stretch tied it with 19 minutes to play for SC, but Smith came to the rescue again, striking the game-winner from the top of the box with 14:51 left, then sealing the 4-2 victory with another goal four minutes later.

“We didn’t get rattled,” said Varsity head coach Tim Cashel. “(Smith) responded to the situation. The third goal reestablished our control, and the fourth essentially ended it.”

They did it in the State Final with a ninth-minute header goal from senior Willie Zempel, one of the ECHO’s own. “After the (championship) game, I decided that I’d never play another high school soccer game again,” said Zempel jokingly, in the knowledge that he’ll graduate after this year.

Zempel, a center defender, had scored five goals on the season prior to the eventual State-winner. All of them were scored off set pieces.

“Once (Zempel) scored this season, he just… couldn’t stop scoring,” said Cashel. “We really wanted that final game to be the product of our experience, and it was.”

Now there are big goals; and then there’s this goal. Junior Cam Oliver’s deep free kick from 34 yards out at the left wing sailed with a soft touch over the defense to the far post, where Zempel met it with his diving head, sending the ball rolling off the fingertips of the Glendale goalie and into the back of the net.

“So I was thinking, ‘Hey look, the ball’s coming; I guess I should head it,’ so I headed it,” Zempel simply said of his goal. It wouldn’t be the last time in the game Zempel’s head would come up big for the Statesmen.

Up 1-0, Zempel and the back line had to go into lockdown mode to keep senior goalie Sam Craig safe from a Glendale equalizer.

“Yes, the goal was great, but the shutout was just as great,” said Cashel. “Our goal coming in was to keep a clean sheet.”

It couldn’t have been easy for the Statesmen defense to hold up a one-goal lead for 70 minutes in the most important game in WGHS soccer history, but along the razor’s edge, the experienced back line passed its biggest test.

It’s a defense that consists of Zempel, the lone senior, and juniors John Conley, David Richards, Trey Paloucek and Caleb Kuhn.

“The kids did an awesome job in implementing our tactical approach,” remarked Cashel. Zempel continued to have the game of his life after the goal, making several massive clearances to extinguish Glendale’s hopes.

A towering through ball about 20 minutes in left Zempel in a one-on-one chase with a defender toward Webster’s goal, but he wheeled around 180 degrees and got his foot to it to clear it back to midfield.

Soon after, Zempel cleared a similar through ball with a header, and on two crosses out of the corner in the second half his head continued to get in the way of Glendale’s strikers, clearing out both threats.

Then on yet another long send that got all the way into the box, Zempel beat the Glendale forward to the ball and booted it a mile over the goal to force a corner, which was harmlessly disposed of by Webster with about 25 minutes to play.

Thanks to the defense, few chances got all the way to Craig in the final, and when they did, he was willing to throw his body in the way to handle them. His most notable moment of the final came with the clock ticking under four minutes, when Glendale crowded the box for a well-placed cross from the corner.

Craig dangerously leapt in front of Glendale’s forwards and somehow came down with the sensational flailing catch. Craig was banged up and slow to get to his feet, but Cashel was confident his senior goalie could complete the shutout.

“He did take a knock. He’s had tightness in his lower back,” said Cashel. “At that point we were trying to slow things down anyway, so we let him take his time to get up, but we wanted him to finish it out.”

Craig did just that, notching his third clean sheet in four games to help lead the Statesmen to the final celebration. They won’t stop celebrating this for a long time in Webster.

“Wow, you’re not gonna let me enjoy this at all, are you?” said Cashel about what’s next for the program.

You can go ahead and enjoy it.

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