JOLIET – Although Tuesday’s Class 3A Joliet West Regional semifinal match between rivals Joliet West and Joliet Central featured a No. 1 seed against an No. 8 seed, nobody expected a match that wouldn’t be competitive.
And they were right, as the Steelmen gave the Tigers all that they could handle. Central only trailed 1-0 heading into the final five minutes before West scored two late goals for a 3-0 win.
Coach Mike O’Shea’s Tigers are 16-8, a program-best for wins. The Tigers will try to win their second regional title in three years when they face Normal Community in Friday’s 4:30 p.m. final. The Ironmen beat Normal West, 2-0, in the other semifinal.
Aaron Sanchez scored in the 11th minute to put the Tigers in front for good. Sanchez also assisted Diego Escamilla for their final goal, while Tony Kochev made a penalty kick just before that, which ended the drama.
“We knew that it would be a tough game, and I was impressed with their play,” O’Shea said. “Erick [Estrada] gets those boys to play. They’re very organized, play well and close fast, and didn’t give us a lot of space. We’re very excited to have this regional at home, and we’re ready to play.”
Central had chances, but weren’t able to get the ball past West goalkeeper Alan Guzman, who recorded a shutout.
“Joliet West played a good game and was efficient, and capitalized on their chances,” Steelmen coach Erick Estrada said. “I just wish it was a different result because our guys really worked hard. But today just wasn’t our day, and it was Joliet West’s day.”
After Sanchez and Kochev were denied by Central goalkeeper Ricardo Padilla early on, the Tigers finally put a combination together when Tony Bedolla found Sanchez free in front, and he connected for the first goal.
“It’s been a great season,” Sanchez said. “We’ve had some ups and downs, but we’re finding our form again, and this is a perfect time for that with the playoffs at home. We can win our second regional in three years, and that would be a perfect way to end things.”
The Steelmen’s Giovanni Sigala, Yonny Silva, Felipe Martinez and Vicente Zavala all had chances during the first half, while the Tigers countered with solid shots by Marcos Quintana, Oscar Haro and Damon Almazan.
“They’re rivals, so we knew we had to go hard and play the best that we could,” Haro said. “There were a couple of times when we broke down as a team, but we came back together and that’s how we got those goals. I think we have the skill, and I have faith in my team.”
West finally connected again in the 76th minute when Kochev got free and was headed toward the net, but was tackled and then put in the subsequent penalty kick. The Tigers added the final goal when Sanchez delivered a corner kick in front of the net and Escamilla was there to head it in to cap the win.
“We expected them to come hard but we came out harder and knew what we had to do,” Escamilla said. “I’m proud that we’ve made history now but I want to keep it going.”