By Tyler Thompson (For Ozarks Sports Zone)
WILLARD — The Neosho Wildcats soccer team (17-7) knew what awaited them at Willard High School Wednesday evening.
With a win, the ‘Cats could soon be packing their bags for the state quarterfinals.
So, after the Class 3 Sectional 6 tilt was pushed back 24 hours due to the early wintry mix that swept its way throughout the Ozarks Tuesday, the Wildcats brought their evolving game to Tigers country: where the ‘Cats struck for the 2-0 final — thereby, continuing their season — two wins away from the championship match.
In the scoreless first half, the visiting Wildcats owned time of possession and shots on goal — with crosses and runs nearly yielding multiple goals.
“We have excellent players, so we just work on holding the ball and holding possession,” Neosho head coach James Carter said. “We try to keep our guys loose and being positive and going forward. They are great players. It is a player’s game and so we just let them play and give them confidence and they do their thing.”
Junior defender Carlos Estrada handled the scoring for the Wildcats while the defense kept its shutout streak going.
Estrada found the net from 30 yards out (8’) on the moonshot that just ducked just inside the left post.
Estrada found the net once more on a penalty kick from 23 yards out (22’), and the defense secured its third shutout in as many matches.
“Carlos had a good shot on goal,” Carter said of the PK. “He did a good job of putting it away when he had the chance.”
The shot just made its way past goalkeeper Trevor Highley’s outstretched fingertips.
Physical prowess is a prerequisite come mid-November postseason soccer, and it was showcased by both sides.
But on the field, bodies were flying and three cards were distributed, including one red (Willard).
It’s all about emotions, Carter said.
“It is a big game for both teams. Emotions run high,” he said. “I thought the players handled themselves well. They are playing hard but nothing out of hand. Just kids playing hard.”
The win marks a scoring differential of 5-0 in their previous three games, as Neosho shut out McDonald County 2-0 in the district semifinals, and a 1-0 win against Webb City in the title game.
Carter has witnessed an evolution on the defensive side of late, as Estrada and company have cut down the passing lanes in a constant pursuit of the ball.
“It has been great. We didn’t give up a goal tonight,” Carter said. “Three clean sheets in a row. They work and communicate well. They are disciplined, and that is what you want from your defensive half.”
With the defense pitching the shutout, and junior goalkeeper Kayden Wood snagging up anything that came within his vicinity, the offense set the tone by keeping the pressure on the Tigers defense from the onset.
While the opportunities were there in the first half, the goals were not.
For Estrada and his counterparts, though, the mindset never wavered at halftime.
“We had a little talk,” Estrada said. “Coach and his motivational speeches always get us. I guess it helped a lot.”
The program continues to be a presence at the state tournament, as this marks back-to-back-to-back trips for the Wildcats.
Last year, the team fell 6-2 to tradition-rich Glendale in the quarterfinal.
One year previous, the Wildcats fell victim to Republic, 5-2, at sectionals.
Estrada said the program’s success hinges on the rapport between the upperclassmen and those stepping foot into the program for the first time.
The camaraderie has proved vital, Estrada said.
“I think it’s because we all grew up together,” Estrada said of the unification. “We’ve played with the higher level once we hit high school. We’ve kicked it up a notch because of the earlier generations teaching us.”
The Wildcats prepare for the Helias Catholic Crusaders (9-15-1) — whom they meet Nov. 16 in quarterfinal action.
Time has yet to be determined.