The Verona boys soccer team members had collected their individual medals Saturday night and were gathered together ready to do something no Wildcats team had ever done before:
Raise a WIAA sectional championship plaque.
But something wasn't quite right.
"Eliot, Eliot," several players called out, summoning Eliot Popkewitz to the front of the excited group. It had to be Popkewitz to thrust the plaque up into the cold, fall air, displaying it above his head and officially starting the celebration.
Just minutes earlier, it was Popkewitz's stunning 25-yard strike that provided the lone goal in the 89th minute as Verona earned its first state tournament berth with a hard-fought, 1-0 victory over Big Eight Conference rival Madison West in a Division 1 sectional final at Madison College's Goodman Pitch.
"It was unbelievable," Wildcats coach Chris Handrick said of Popkewitz's goal with 109 seconds left in regulation. "And there's no one more deserving. The player of the year in the conference, for Eliot Popkewitz, who gives his life to this sport. He's been working toward that for three years."
Verona (19-1-2), which was believed to be playing in a sectional final for the first time in program history, beat the Regents, 4-1, in a Big Eight match on Sept. 19, but this postseason rematch played out much differently.
After an even opening 45 minutes, the Wildcats turned up the pressure coming out of the break.
"The biggest thing we reminded the boys (was that) we were losing our style slightly, and that (means) we needed to get the ball down, we needed to possess it and we needed to work through their defense," said Handrick, whose team has won nine in a row since its lone loss, a 1-0 decision to De Pere on Sept. 28.
Verona did that and carved out some chances, but the West backline turned back nearly every attack. Even when the Wildcats did break through, all-conference senior goalkeeper Oscar Herrera did his part to keep it scoreless.
But as time ticked down with the prospect of overtime beckoning, Popkewitz had the ball on the left side and figured he would "rip a shot and hopefully it will go in." The shot zipped over and past Herrera — his club teammate with the Madison 56ers — and into the upper right corner of the goal.
"That's one of my nicer ones," Popkewitz said when asked where his 12th goal of the season ranks. "And also just because it means a little more, it makes it feel a little better."
Regents coach Pat Bauch was pleased with his team's performance, as it took a special play by a special player to finally breach the West defense.
"No complaints with the effort, the energy, the hustle," said Bauch, whose team finished 12-5-2 in his first season as head coach. "We gave ... a danger man just a little bit of an opening and he hit one of the best shots I've seen certainly all year and probably in a long time."
Elkhorn 2, Oregon 0
Ben Vogel scored off an assist from Gavino Perez in the 23rd minute, and Alec Birbaum scored in the 39th minute to send second-ranked Elkhorn (21-1-0) to state for the third time and the first since 2010.
Coltrane LoBreglio made 10 saves for eighth-ranked Oregon (14-7-1), last year's state champion.
McFarland 3, Mount Horeb 1
Ethan Nichols struck for two goals, one in each half, as the top-ranked Spartans (16-2-4) held off the sixth-ranked Vikings (13-7-1). McFarland goalie Matt Schutt made 19 saves. The Spartans, last year's state runners-up, will make their third state appearance.
Lake Mills 2,
Lake Country Lutheran 2 (3-2)
The L-Cats earned their first-ever state tournament berth, as sophomore Brayden Ciesiolka converted the L-Cats' final penalty kick after goalkeeper Connor Dean stopped a kick by the Lightning's Ty Brewer. Drew Stoddard scored the tying penalty kick for Lake Mills.
Lake Country Lutheran took a 2-0 halftime lead, but John Wilke and Ciesiolka scored goals in the final 33 minutes to tie things up for the L-Cats.