MILWAUKEE — Sure, a few seasoned, experienced veterans helped the McFarland boys soccer team on Thursday.
But it was a couple of freshmen who led the Spartans to the promised land: Saturday’s WIAA Division 3 state championship match.
Behind two goals from striker Zach Nichols and a pair of critical late saves from goalkeeper Matt Schutt, McFarland earned a spot in the championship game with a 2-0 victory over Plymouth in a Thursday semifinal match at Uihlein Soccer Park.
The Rock Valley Conference champion Spartans (19-4-0) will meet Milwaukee Pius XI (18-3-1) at 11 a.m. Saturday. It’s the first state championship game for both programs.
McFarland co-captain and midfielder Caleb Blair, one of only two seniors in the starting lineup, said the team has played older and wiser than its years might suggest.
“A lot of these kids are very skilled and really know what they’re doing,” Blair said. “Zach, for one, played a heck of a match today. It’s really good to see all these young players come together.
“We’re living the dream,” Blair added. “This is what you play for.”
Nichols scored off a scrum near the left side of the goal at 37:18 of the first half. He pounded the ball into the far right corner from point-blank range.
“This feels very good,” he said. “I love playing with these guys. They’re all talented, but we knew it would take a lot of hard work to get this far. And now here we are.”
McFarland coach Brett Ogorzalek said his team — which also has three sophomores and four juniors in its lineup — is ready for its big moment.
“This feels great,” he said. “This a terrific group of guys with a lot of character and integrity. This is a huge honor. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we’re thrilled and honored to have this chance. We’re going to enjoy every second of it.”
The Spartans entered the semifinals with the No. 1 seeding and dominated play against the Panthers (14-5-5), outshooting them 21-6.
But Plymouth had a sound defensive strategy that kept McFarland from earning many dangerous chances. And of those, Plymouth senior keeper Gabe Thull cleaned up nine shots.
Ogorzalek said McFarland took some time adjusting to the Uihlein turf.
“We had a hard time with some of our simple fundamentals,” he said.
McFarland maintained control for much of the second half, but as the Panthers became more aggressive offensively, Schutt — at 5-foot-6, 140 pounds — stepped to the forefront.
He watched as a couple of good Plymouth chances grazed the top of the net and sailed over. Later, he had to make two saves, including one in traffic in the 82nd minute.
As Plymouth moved up, it gave the Spartans a chance at a counterattack. Nichols, who had to sit out part of the second half with a calf injury, took advantage by racing up the left side of the field on a breakaway.
Thull came out, trying to minimize Nichols’ angle, but Nichols stayed calm and popped the ball into the upper right corner for the clincher at 88:24.
“You never know when you’ll get those opportunities,” Nichols said. “So you have to take advantage of them. ... This is amazing. I never thought we’d be in this position.”
Plymouth 0 0 — 0
McFarland 1 1 — 2
First half: M — Z. Nichols, 37:18.
Second half: M — Z. Nichols, 88:24.
Shots — P 6 (Thiesenhusen 3, Dale 1, Vargas 1, Lautenschlager 1), M 21 (E. Nichols 9, Blair 5, Z. Nichols 3, Sampson 1, Larsen 1, Connor 1, Seils 1). Shots on goal — P 3, M 11. Corner kicks — P 1; M 7. Fouls — P 8; M 10. Offside — P 0; M 0. Saves — P (Thull) 9; M (Schutt) 3.