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MILWAUKEE — Chris Handrick admits that when he took over as head coach of the Verona boys soccer team four years ago, winning the state championship wasn’t his immediate goal.

His players, however, had other ideas. And now, the Wildcats are the state champions for the first time in school history.

Verona brought home the gold after a picture-perfect performance at Uihlein Soccer Park on Saturday night produced a 2-0 victory over Neenah in the WIAA Division 1 final.

“To accomplish it with these kids is just amazing,” Handrick said. “They knew they wanted to bring home the gold ball.”

For the second consecutive night, senior captain Eliot Popkewitz got things started for Verona. The Big Eight Conference Player of the Year made up for a missed opportunity in the 10th minute by cutting back for a feed from Gannon Simonett in the 14th minute. He pushed a shot past the outstretched arms of Neenah keeper Ian Bogan for a 1-0 lead.

“It felt great to get ahead early again,” said Popkewitz, who scored 13 goals on the season and six during the playoffs. “It gave us a confidence boost that pushed us through the whole game.”

Top-seeded Verona (21-1-2) took the lead into halftime, and it was still a 1-0 game in the 63rd minute when Neenah’s Thomas Priest broke deep in Verona’s defensive end — only to get forced off track by a swarm of defenders before turning the ball over.

Neenah (18-2-3) threatened again in the 77th, drawing Hanson out of the goal and leaving room for Bryce Henderson to make a clear shot. Verona caught a break, though, as the defense cleared the ball off the line to preserve the one-goal lead.

“They got a shot and our back-line defender cleared it out, and we were able to get back to nomal,” said Hanson, who finished with three saves as Neenah was limited to five shots.

Staying mentally focused was a challenge, especially with in cold temperatures. But Handrick was impressed with Hanson’s ability to stay in the game and be ready when the team needed him most.

“It’s hard standing out there in this weather,” Handrick said. “But Nate had the mindset and mental toughness to push himself through.”

Handrick and the Wildcats started feeling the nervousness build as the lead stayed at 1-0 and Neenah stepped up its pressure over the final 15 minutes.

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“It started to kick in that we were only up by one,” Handrick said. “I think the boys had some nerves here and there, but they were prepared and they were ready. And that’s what made the difference.”

And in the 86th minute, Wildcats junior Jonathan Gamez eased the tension. He bent in an unassisted drive from the left side past Bogan, creating the breathing room Verona needed.

“You could feel the pressure building,” Gamez said. “We knew we had to score one more. It was incredible.”

The Wildcats finished the season with an 11-game winning streak, allowing six goals during that stretch.

The Wildcats are the first team other than perennial power Milwaukee Marquette to win the title since Muskego beat Green Bay Preble in a shootout for the crown. They’re also the first Big Eight team to win the championship since 2006, when Madison Memorial beat Brookfield East in the final.

Memorial also was the last Big Eight team to reach the final, falling to Muskego in 2009.

Neenah 0 0 — 0

Verona 1 1 — 2

First half: V — Popkewitz (Simonett), 13:04.

Second half: V — Gamez, 86:09.

Shots: N 5 (Priest 2, Nasr 1, Henderson 1, Quinonez 1); V 19 (Gamez 5, Popkewitz 3, Abreu 3, McNuckle 2, Knight 2, Lynch 1, Br. Luttinen 1, Be. Luttinen 1, Simonett 1). Shots on goal: N 3 (Nasr, Henderson, Quinonez); V 9 (Popkewitz 2, Abreu 2, Gamez 2, Br. Luttinen 1, Lynch 1, McNuckle 1). Saves: N (Bogan) 7; V (Hanson) 3. Corner kicks: N 3; V 9. Offside: None. Yellow cards: V 0; N 1 (Priest).

Records: N 18-2-3; V 21-1-2.

Bucky!

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