Deficits too much for devastated Cats

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Jasper players Caleb Williams, left, Garret Jespersen, Luke Ackerman, Caleb Hurst and Angel Hernandez hugged on the bench after the Wildcats’ season ended on the first night of the state tournament Monday. Jasper absorbed a 4-3 loss to Evansville North in the Class 2A sectional as the Wildcats allowed a season-high goal total and couldn’t complete a rally from a 3-1 halftime deficit. For a gallery of photos, click here.

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

EVANSVILLE — The group of four sat together on a cold steel bench, the arms of each draped over the shoulders of those on either side.

Caleb Williams, Luke Ackerman, Caleb Hurst and Angel Hernandez remained with their heads down, gripping each other tightly. Garret Jespersen leaned over from behind, his head buried in his teammates’ shoulders.

Gustav Brodin sat nearby on a water cooler. His face showed little expression. His eyes looked somewhere far in the distance.

Others, like Derek Schmitt, Nathan Helsley and Logan Witte, wandered the area by Jasper’s bench, continually looking for the next person to hug.

Wildcat coach Kyle Kendall sat by himself, his chin resting in his left palm, his face displaying a similar air of bewilderment.

As one of the most accomplished boys soccer teams in Jasper history drifted through the immediate aftermath of a 4-3 setback to host Evansville North in the Class 2A sectional Monday night, the unanswerable, insufferable questions lingered.

How? Why?

A team that had amassed 13 shutouts, averaged 4 1⁄2 goals per game and included the program’s all-time point and goal leader found itself out of the state tournament earlier than any expected. What many felt would be a trek deep into October, halted at its very outset.

“This is one of those that’s going to take a week or so to reflect on,” Kendall said.

“Just in disbelief.”

No. 19 Jasper (14-3-2)  had given up three goals in a game just once all season — to top-ranked Columbus North in August — and had never surrendered more than that. At one point, the Wildcats went more than 880 straight minutes without relinquishing a goal.

Yet Monday’s match offered a differing tenor from many of the Wildcats’ past bouts. From the time of the Huskies’ first goal less than seven minutes into the contest, an unfamiliar tone presented itself.

“I hate to say it, but in a lot of ways we’re a product of our own success, or a victim of our own success,” Kendall said. “You play all season and you put yourself into situations where you score early — we said all year our only worry with winning all those games and getting all those shutouts was that we hadn’t seen us play from behind. And you’ve got to hand it to our kids, we played great once we got behind, but we just haven’t been there much.”

The Wildcats trailed just twice in their 17 regular-season matches. Monday, they encountered two deficits and found just one equalizer, knotting the match at 1 off an own goal by the Huskies following a Steven O’Connor cross and pressure from Helsley with 22 minutes left in the opening period.

Twenty-one seconds changed everything.

North’s Braden Van Allen converted a nifty give-and-go inside Jasper’s 18-yard box to take a 2-1 edge. The Huskies (13-3-1) then intercepted the ensuing kickoff and engineered a quick counterattack, with Caleb Powers driving a shot past a sprawling Cameron Craven into the lower left corner for a two-goal cushion.

“That was the game-changer,” Kendall said.

“One (goal) would have been one thing — we’re down 2-1 at the half — but to give up that third one right before half, it hurt.”

Nevertheless, Kendall said he knew the team had the capacity to generate a comeback. So did the players.

“We weren’t going away, that’s for sure,” said Hurst, who wreaked havoc alongside Helsley at forward all game. “We were fighting all the way till the end.”

Two minutes into the second half, Craven collected the ball inside the Cats’ box. He then rolled it some 10 yards forward to Ackerman, who quickly advanced it forward to Williams around midfield. The senior turned and launched a well-timed ball ahead to a streaking Hurst atop the penalty area. The junior reached the ball a split second before North’s goalie, took one touch to the side and coolly buried a tough-angled finish with his left foot. The deficit, cut to one.

Yet 14 seconds later, the Huskies once again curtailed the comeback, when a host of Wildcat defenders brought a Husky forward to the ground into the Jasper 18-yard box. And with Powers’ penalty kick, the lead ballooned to 4-2.

As the minutes dwindled, Jasper’s scoring opportunities seemed to swell. With 22 minutes left, the Wildcats earned a penalty kick of their own, which Williams drilled. The tally was the 47th of Williams’ career, tying him with Jason Wolf atop Jasper’s career goal list. With a goal and an assist, Williams also extended his career point total to 115, also tops in program history.

It was the Wildcats’ 79th goal of the season, and their last.

By the 73rd minute, Jasper had just two traditional defenders on the field. With less than six minutes left, Williams sizzled a shot directly at the goalie. With 31⁄2 minutes remaining, Jasper belted a header off a free kick right to the goalkeeper’s hands. With under three minutes to play, the referee whistled offsides on Hurst as Williams, who appeared to be onside, advanced upfield with the ball. Jasper’s bench erupted at the call.

The energy never subsided. The finish just never came.

“That was the most heart I’ve seen on a team,” Williams said. “I haven’t played on a high school team or a travel team that has had as much heart. It just ended the wrong way.”

Added Hurst: “I’ve never been so happy to play with a group of guys in my life. It comes from everyone, even the players that come off the bench. Everyone had a role. And until that last game, fought their (butts) off. We just got unlucky.”

What do you say to a group in these moments? Thinking of the team’s seven seniors, Kendall simply paused.

“I think I’ll figure that one out on the bus,” he said. “You tell them you love them. You tell them you had the time of your life this year. I’ve been coaching a long time. I’ve never experienced a season like this.

“Can’t ask for more heart out of our kids. They wanted it. We told them at halftime they were the only team I’ve ever coached that I felt could come back in that game. And they got real close.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




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