Wildcats’ season ends in heartbreaking fashion


A. Dubon

EVANSVILLE — In the Class 3A Evansville Harrison Sectional final against Castle on Saturday, Jasper boys soccer played the role of the boxer who refuses to stay down.

Defenseman Gerardo Serrano was placed in concussion protocol with just 20 minutes gone, returning in the second half after being cleared.

Midfielder Jackson Kabrick took a kick to the shin while sliding toward the ball, putting him on the sideline for about five minutes in the opening period.

Defenseman Dillon Sternberg was bleeding from the nose in the second half, to the point where fans in the stands took notice. And midfielder-turned-defenseman Johnny Verkamp had his nose pinched shut by match’s end to prevent a similar issue.

In the end, the Wildcats just ran out of time to connect on one final punch as they dropped the championship match 2-1 against the 3A No. 13 Knights.

“We never played a game like that all year, and we played well against good teams,” Jasper coach Kyle Kendall said. “And even though today, some things went wrong, under these conditions, to go out and play this game ... says a lot about the character of these guys.”

The Wildcats (9-9) put forth an effort Kendall said the team was “ashamed of” in a 6-0 loss to the Knights (14-4-1) on Sept. 23. That was not repeated Saturday, despite rain pouring down through the opening half and giving way to brief-but-strong wind by halftime and blinding sunshine in the second period.

“I actually told my assistant, the last 10 minutes when it was bright sun, I was like, it felt like it was 8 o’clock an hour ago, and now it feels like it’s 2 in the afternoon,” Castle coach Mike Reiter said. “It was just a strange game.”

But it was an affair players and coaches from both sides said they expected to be tight despite the previous outcome.

“We knew that team wasn’t better than us,” said Jasper junior forward Tyler Hunt. “We respect them a lot, and we knew it was going to be a good competition. But the first game, we had a pretty rough game.”

“We knew it was going to be a battle,” Castle junior goaltender Michael Bertram added. “We knew ... it was not going to be a six-goal game. We got every bit of what we expected, and we couldn’t have asked for a better sectional final.”

The Wildcats landed the first blow about five minutes in, when senior forward Angelino Dubon knocked home a Kabrick free kick to fire up the Jasper bench and supporters.

“I think it was a pretty big deal (to score first) because just having that goal, having that lead, it pushed us,” Hunt said. “Like, ‘Hey, they’re not 6-0 better than us.’”

Reiter said the Knights responded better than he expected, evidenced by senior midfielder Michael Lonnberg bouncing a shot across the box and past Jasper senior goalkeeper Jacob Drake Lechner to tie the contest about 10 minutes in.

“If we go down early, we probably know we’re going to get some chances and hopefully stick a few in,” Reiter said. “Our bench actually picked up (after Dubon’s goal), and our guys were OK with it, which I was pleased to see. I was actually kind of shocked by it.”

While Hunt said he didn’t think the day’s wild weather affected the outcome, Kendall contended that both goals were probably aided by the conditions.

“It is what it is, (and) it may have even helped us a little bit,” Kendall said. “Our kids sucked it up, and it almost added to the drama a little bit. Under the lights, under the rain, it’s not a bad atmosphere to play in at all.”

Bertram, who described his team’s victory as “unreal,” said precipitation made his job a little more difficult early in the game.

“More of it was just vision. I couldn’t see the ball very well,” he said. “But other than that, not much changes for me.”

Castle held a lion’s share of the offensive bids over the first half’s final 20 minutes, but Jasper’s defense — led primarily by junior Evan Leuck, Sternberg, a shifted Verkamp and a healthy Serrano — got in a front of several chances and knocked the ball either out of bounds or back the other direction. The rest was mopped up by Lechner, occasionally with help from the goal posts or crossbar.

But the Knights wouldn’t be denied seven minutes into the second half, as junior midfielder Simon Paez hammered a shot to the left of and past Lechner after taking a touch and briefly hesitating to assess the situation.

From there, the Wildcats created an increasingly sizable wave of pressure to find the equalizer. That’s where Bertram stepped up, diving all directions so fend off Jasper bids as late as the final five minutes.

“This has been the best he’s played this year in stretches,” Reiter said of Bertram. “That was about 15 minutes where we were under pressure and he made three big saves for us. He showed when he needed to. I was very proud.”

That emotion flowed from Kendall as well in spite of the end result. The Wildcats sat silently in a huddle after watching Castle receive the sectional trophy — an event Kendall made sure all of his players faced directly in a show of respect.

Afterward, Kendall and senior forward Josue Dubon held back tears as they, along with assistant coaches, addressed the team. Once the huddle broke, hugs were exchanged between coach and athletes.

The shame Jasper had felt after falling to Castle in late September was nowhere to be found.

“If they’re going to go out, that’s how I want them to go out,” Kendall said. “When I think back to this team, it’ll be to those 15 minutes and the chances they created for themselves to get back in the game.”

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