STERLING – Carlos Gallardo wasn't sure how he got there, but as he got back up from the Sterling Chevrolet Field turf, the Sterling senior knew he wasn't going to be on the sideline for long.
It was a good thing for the Golden Warriors that he easily passed all the concussion tests and was cleared to return to Tuesday's match against the Geneseo Maple Leafs.
In a back-and-forth tussle one would expect from the Northern Illinois Big 12 West co-leaders, Gallardo's equalizer with 11:41 left in the match secured a 3-3 tie at Roscoe Eades Stadium.
"It's like that every time we play," Geneseo senior Ethan Radue said. "It's always a battle between two rivals, and I think both teams really look forward to the chance to play with so much at stake."
Sterling's 24-match conference win streak was snapped, but the Warriors still have not lost in their last 25 NIB-12 West matches.
"The No. 1 thing I hate is losing," Gallardo said, "and it means a lot to keep this not-losing streak going. With all the things that can happen during matches, we're proud that we haven't let one slip away in a long time."
It looked like this might just be the one that did get away from the Warriors (7-2-4, 4-0-1), but neither team could hold an advantage for long.
Tony Diaz's left-footed shot off Gallardo's pass crossed the face of the goal at the 24:20 mark of the first half, but the Maple Leafs (8-4-2, 4-0-1) answered right back when Griffin Welfer converted a loose ball in front of the Sterling net into a goal at the 21:54 mark.
Diaz again gave the Warriors the lead at the 31:13 mark in the second half, when a Sterling throw-in rattled around in front of the Geneseo goal before Diaz poked it past Leafs keeper Josh Morton for his 22nd goal of the season.
But Geneseo responded quickly again, this time on Radue's header off an Adam Stenzel center pass with 28:37 to play.
"Both teams have a lot of talent and the ability to finish around the goal, and you really saw that at times tonight," Geneseo coach Ian Kline said. "When you have two offenses that like to attack, there are going to be a lot of opportunities to score on the counter-attack."
The Warriors proved their ability to do the same. Radue's crossing pass from the left side of the penalty box found Hunter DeSplinter's foot on the right post, and the Leafs took their first lead of the match with 12:58 remaining.
But Gallardo and Sterling wouldn't be denied. One minute, 17 seconds later, Gallardo tied the match at 3 when he corralled Diaz's pass into the scrum in front of the goal and found the back of the net.
"We know that neither team is going to dominate this matchup," Diaz said, "so we came prepared to do whatever we had to do to not lose. Obviously we would've liked to control things better when we got the lead, but it felt great that we were able to fight back at the end."
Gallardo's 15th goal of the season was even sweeter considering that there was a brief moment where his teammates weren't sure he'd be in the game down the stretch. The quarterback of the Warriors' offensive breaks, Gallardo missed a few minutes in the second half after sacrificing his body to block a kick by Morton.
As he was chasing a pass ahead, Gallardo saw the Geneseo keeper beat him to the ball. But instead of stopping, Gallardo kept sprinting toward Morton, and leapt into the air to try and knock down Morton's kick. The ball glanced off Gallardo, who hit the turf hard and didn't get up for a minute.
"I saw a 50-50 ball, and the goalie beat me to it," Gallardo explained. "I jumped in front of him, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. It stung, but I felt fine, and it meant a lot to me to help my team. I'm a lot happier with the tie than a loss."
After trainers helped Gallardo to the sideline, his return to the match was swift. He took another hard spill later on, but stayed on the field … and that ended up being a very good thing for Sterling.
"He gives us a lot of motivation, and means a lot to our team," Diaz said. "To see him back out there, and to know that he was going to create something good for us, that makes a huge difference."
Morton saved seven of Sterling's 12 shots, while Warrior keeper Jared Fernandez made six stops on 18 Geneseo shots.
Sterling 3, Geneseo 3
Star of the match: Tony Diaz, Sterling, 2 goals, 1 assist
Key performers: Carlos Gallardo, Sterling, 1 goal, 1 assist; Ethan Radue, Geneseo, 1 goal, 1 assist; Hunter DeSplinter & Griffin Welfer, Geneseo, 1 goal each
Up next: Sterling at Streator, 6 p.m. today