By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
All season long, a night like Thursday would have seemed far-fetched for the Joplin soccer team.
The Eagles lost their first nine games to start the year and didn’t win at home for the first time until a week-and-a-half ago.
But here they were Thursday, hoisting the first-place plaque as the unlikely champions of the Class 4 District 11 tournament after besting Central 3-2 at Joplin High School.
“Definitely on paper we shouldn’t have been here,” Joplin coach Luis Percovich said.
“It feels amazing,” senior Ethan Merino said. “People had us underestimated but it feels amazing to come through.”
Seeded last in the district, Joplin upset top-seeded Republic on a penalty shootout in Tuesday’s first round. That game was tied 2-2 after regulation and two overtime periods, and neither team could seal it in the first shootout, forcing a sudden death. Joplin midfielder Michael Landers, a junior, finally scored the winner.
That would have qualified for ending the season on a high note had Thursday’s championship gone another way.
Joplin never even trailed, though, against a third-seeded Central team that pulled an upset of its own to reach the championship when it beat second seed Carthage 1-0 on Tuesday.
It was Merino who provided the heroics for Joplin this time.
The forward scored two goals, including a header for the game winner in the 74th minute off a corner kick by freshman Dilan Sanchez.
“I saw desire, I saw fight,” Percovich said of the play. “We haven’t had a single goal off a corner. We usually make the same runs, make the same crosses but you could tell the boys just wanted it more. They were able to jump over everybody and we got the header.”
“We had so few chances in the second half, we had to make them count,” Merino said. “The corner – I usually run the same way but Dilan just put it right up to me and I had to do something with it, I had to put it in and luckily I did in their post. It was just an unreal feeling, an unreal moment. Especially having it be the winning goal.”
Merino looked back, saw the ball go through the keeper’s hands and took off.
“I just ran,” he said. “Pure excitement and joy.”
Joplin, 9-16, opened the scoring in the sixth minute on a strike from outside the box by senior midfielder James Hernandez. The goal was assisted by junior midfielder Rashawn Davis.
Central, 10-13, answered in the 12th minute when sophomore forward Noe Winston lofted the ball over the keeper from the left side. He was assisted by senior forward Ahmed BenMakhlouf.
Joplin took a 2-1 lead on Merino’s first goal in the 31st minute, assisted again by Davis.
Noe scored again in the 39th minute to send the teams into the half deadlocked.
“It was a team effort,” Percovich said. “I think too single out one single play might be unfair to the boys. There are still some things we need to improve considering who we’re going to play but we did what we had to do. We made adjustments at the half and I’m just happy to have gotten the win.”
The victory marks Joplin’s first district title since 2013, when the Eagles beat Kickapoo 2-1 in overtime. The Eagles have now won a season-high four games in a row, but face a tall order in Tuesday’s sectional round when they travel to 19-1 Lee’s Summit.
“We had a very, very rough season and luckily we got that push against Republic,” Percovich said. “I thought we played well against them and that was probably one of our best games of the season. We got the win, as unlikely as it may have been, and we finished the job today. We take the good and we take the bad. We’ve experienced a lot more bad than good this season but at the end of the day we accomplished our goal so I’m happy.”