Neff's goal propels Lourdes to section championship, first trip to state since 2015
The top two seeds in the Section One, Class A boys soccer playoffs reached Tuesday's championship match, as top-seeded Lourdes hosted second-seeded Dover-Eyota. Lourdes made a Trent Neff goal late in the first half stand up as the game winner.
Sean Kane might have as hard a time as anyone believing it: The seniors on this year's Rochester Lourdes boys soccer team were in fifth grade the last time the Eagles had qualified for the state tournament.
That's a long dry spell for a program that, for decades, was accustomed to making annual trips north in late October.
That dry spell is over for head coach Kane and the Eagles, thanks to a team led by those kids who were fifth-graders in 2015, the last time Lourdes qualified for the Class A state tournament.
Lourdes made history Tuesday, earning the 15th trip to state in program history with a 2-0 victory against Dover-Eyota in the Section One, Class A championship match at Rochester Regional Stadium.
"It's amazing," Lourdes senior midfielder Trent Neff said. "We struggled through the first couple of games of the season and we've been slowly building up to this. It means a lot to us to have worked this hard to get here and it paid off in the end."
After a half-dozen chances from close range in the first half, Lourdes finally broke through with just more than 2 minutes remaining before halftime. Neff was standing near the Dover-Eyota net when the ball bounced right to him, hit him in the chest then fell to the ground. He corralled the loose ball behind the Dover-Eyota defense and fired it to the far side of D-E keeper Logan Behnken for a 1-0 lead.
That's how the score remained until 5:20 remained in the second half, when Lourdes' Sam Theobald found himself alone behind the D-E defense and didn't miss on his opportunity. The freshman booted the ball into an open side of the net for an insurance goal that allowed Lourdes and its fans to breathe a little easier.
Lourdes' defense took care of the rest, bottling up D-E's powerful offensive attack and junior speedster and goal scorer Brodie Kellen for a majority of the match.
The win is Lourdes' second of the year against D-E. The first came back on Sept. 27, when Lourdes won 1-0 in Rochester.
"This was a pretty similar game," Kane, the Eagles' head coach said. "Both teams are so evenly matched. We're both physical teams, both quick and athletic. We match up really well against each other.
"We played well in the first half and I think we took a lot out of them."
Behnken did a nice job of keeping D-E in the match, making 11 saves as Lourdes (9-8-2 overall) dominated ball possession for much of the first half and a good portion of the second half.
Dover-Eyota (12-5-2 overall) had a couple of chances in the first half, including a header from close range by Brodie Kellen that Lourdes goalie Freddie Suhler stopped. In the second half, Lourdes freshman defender Tyzion Morris also broke up two potential scoring chances by getting in a passing lane and preventing D-E from getting the ball to the middle of the field.
D-E also played the second half without center defenseman Maverick Sobczak, who D-E coach John Pittenger called "maybe our single-most important player." Sobczak entered the game with a leg injury and valiantly attempted to play through it in the first half.
"He tried to go in the first half and the rest of the team tried to adjust for him," Pittenger said. "...We regrouped and played better in the second half, but Lourdes was better than us tonight. They played well and should be proud."
Lourdes, which last went to state in 2015, was playing in the Section 1A final for the fourth time in the past five years. It had lost its previous three appearances by one goal each time, all against Austin.
Last season, Lourdes was upset in the first round of the section playoffs by Caledonia.
Dover-Eyota, though playing in a section final for only the second time in program history, had a bit of a big-match advantage over Lourdes on Tuesday. D-E played in last year's section final, against Austin, losing a heartbreaker on penalty kicks after playing to a 1-1 draw. D-E had some opportunities to win that match in overtime, including off a corner kick in the second OT, but Austin managed to prevail for a fourth straight season.
"We had to replace eight starters off last year's team," Pittenger said. "We had to just rebuild, and we had a couple of rough games to start the year, but then, for really the last month and a half, we have played very well together."
With the new three-class system in Minnesota high school soccer, Austin moved up to Class AA this fall, clearing a path for Lourdes and D-E to both return to the section final.
Both teams entered averaging a shade more than 2 goals per match (D-E at 2.2, Lourdes at 2.1). D-E had the better record, at 13-4-2; Lourdes entered with an 8-8-2 mark, though five of its losses had come against teams ranked in the top 10 in the state and it was 6-0-0 against Section 1A opponents.
Lourdes also brought a two-game winning streak into Tuesday's match, its only winning streak of the season, due to the challenging nature of its regular-season schedule.
"It really builds mental toughness among the guys," Lourdes senior goalie Freddie Suhler said of the Eagles' tough schedule. "You come into every match knowing that it's going to be a battle and that you're going to have to give full effort every time you practice or play.
"It's been hard, but we got the job done."