ROCHELLE – For the better part of a half-hour, Sterling's soccer players and coaches formed a tight circle, saying things they never imagined they'd be saying so soon.
Assistant coach Gabriel Ocampo spoke the longest, about how friendships forged have so much more meaning than any trophy ever would.
Head coach Chris Interone and assistant Brian Cebula broke down and cried when talking about how much they enjoyed working with the team over the years.
Senior defender Diego Aguilar tearfully implored his teammates to look around and soak it all in, because they'd never have a moment like this to savor again as a group.
Sterling, top-seeded in the Class 2A Rochelle Regional, found itself in this position after dropping a 2-1 decision to the host Hubs on Tuesday afternoon.
Rochelle (10-10) now awaits the winner of today's other first-round game between Dixon and Yorkville. The title game will be Saturday at noon.
Sterling (19-3), meanwhile, saw its season come to an improbable end. The Golden Warriors beat Rochelle 5-2 in the regular season, and after reaching the sectional final the past 2 years, seemed to have the goods to go even deeper into the postseason. Instead, they'll be spectators when the sectional is contested at Roscoe Eades Stadium next week.
"They have so much skill and so much talent that everybody held us to a higher standard," Interone said of his squad. "This is just quite the upset. I almost don't know how to handle it. I know we dealt this to Geneseo 2 years ago, and now we're on the receiving end of it. What goes around comes around."
Sterling had 16 shots on goal, but just one of them, by Salomon Ocampo 5 minutes into the first half, found its way home. The rest of them were either deflected away at the last second by Rochelle keeper Kevin Stevens, or caromed off the post. Ocampo had four shots clang off the iron in the second half, when the Golden Warriors grew more desperate with each passing minute.
"I was definitely unlucky today," Ocampo said. "Sure, we got beat, but we definitely could have beat them. We had the chances. It's not like they outplayed us. I'm definitely going to have nightmares for these posts."
He might also have some night terrors about Stevens, a hulking goalie built like a tight end for the Rochelle football team.
"A lot of times I got lucky," Stevens said. "I just tried to stop as much as I could. I guess I made the saves that counted."
"That keeper for Rochelle played a tremendous second half," Interone said. "Every time we got a good shot on goal, he was right there. You didn't think he was going to make it, but all of a sudden, his hands were there. Kudos to that guy. He played one heck of a game."
Rochelle drew first blood on a penalty kick barely 4 minutes into the game. The Hubs' Juan Casillas was taken down in the box by Sterling defender Gabriel Capilla. Miguel Casillas was called upon to take the penalty kick, and he cleanly beat Sterling keeper Jorge Garcia.
Ocampo tied it up 11 seconds later, weaving his way through the Rochelle defense and beating Stevens from about 15 yards. Hubs fans were still cheering their first goal, and Ocampo put an index finger to his lips to silence them after his 25th goal this season.
Five minutes later, it was the Hubs' turn to howl. A throw-in from the right of the Sterling goal deflected off a Sterling defender and onto the foot of Casillas, who booted it past Garcia. A referee initially called offsides, but it was determined that because the play started on a throw-in, the goal would stand.
Midway through the second half, Sterling had a goal denied by offsides, and that decision stood. A long shot caromed off a scrum of players in front of the Rochelle goal to Ocampo, whose shot from point-blank range was deflected by Stevens. The ball rolled in front of the goal, where the Warriors' Carlos Gallardo tapped it in.
Sterling's joy lasted about 3 seconds, as the goal was waved off after it was determined Gallardo was offsides. He disagreed with the call.
"Most of my goals have been off of deflections," Gallardo said. "Salomon has a hard kick, so most goalies can't block him. They hit it to the side. As soon as I saw him kick it, I ran, and I thought I was onside. I nailed it in, then I looked to the right and saw the ref holding up his flag. I was like, 'Oh no. This sucks.' "
Rochelle had just five shots on goal, not including the penalty kick, as the vast majority of action was on the Hubs' side of the field.
"We just had to finish the ones that we had," said Casillas, who scored his fifth and sixth goals of the season. "We did it, and we got the big 'W.' "
The win was doubly sweet for Rochelle. The Hubs had their season end a year ago in the regional final at the Warriors' hands. The Hubs' loss earlier this season, Rochelle coach Keith Lamb noted, was a bit deceiving, as his team had to compete with just nine players because of two red cards.
"Everybody was telling me how good they were," Lamb said. "Well, we knew how good they were. The big thing is we shut it down in the middle. They were going to keep attacking, and all our defense had to do was to clear the ball out and try to keep calm.
"I think we did a good job of that in the first half. Sterling out-did us in the second half, but they were very unlucky on some of their shots. I'm thanking the soccer gods for that, that's for sure."
Star of the game: Kevin Stevens (R), 15 saves
Key performers: Miguel Casillas (R), 2 goals; Salomon Ocampo (S), goal
Up next: Championship game, Rochelle vs. Dixon/Yorkville, noon Saturday