ROCHELLE – Sterling and Dixon took turns peppering each other's goal for the better part of Tuesday's game in the Class 2A Rochelle Regional.
A shot by the Golden Warriors' Carlos Gallardo, however, was the only one to find its way home.
Gallardo's goal with 22 minutes, 45 seconds to play lifted Sterling (15-3-4) to a 1-0 victory, and a berth in the regional championship match on Friday. It will meet the winner of today's game between Rochelle and Freeport.
Sterling coach Brian Cebula described the victory as a "huge relief," especially considering the fate that befell the team a year ago. A powerful Golden Warriors squad entered the regional as the No. 1 seed, only to be upset by Rochelle.
"We didn't really talk about that game, but I think everybody remembered what happened," Cebula said. "I could tell the guys were really nervous, because they were a lot quieter than they usually are on the bus and in the locker room."
"It hurt bad," Gallardo said, when asked about last year's regional loss. "We knew how that felt, and we didn't want that feeling again, so we came out and played our best, and got what we wanted."
The only goal of the game started on a defensive miscue by Dixon (1-15-2). Dukes' defenders Brendon McCrory and Taz Kuster each had a chance to stop a bounding ball about 25 yards in front of the Dixon goal, but neither made a play.
It ended up going to Gallardo, who had a 1-on-1 opportunity with Dixon goalie Brandon Jagitsch.
"When the ball went over the players' heads and I saw two players behind me, I was like, 'I've got to make this. I've got to make this,'" Gallardo said.
Jagitsch came out of the goal to try to cut down the angle of the shot, but when Gallardo maneuvered the ball to the goalie's right, there was nothing but green grass between him and the net. He booted the ball in from about 10 yards for his 25th goal this season.
The weather and field conditions played a big part in the scoring opportunity. Snow showers earlier in the day and intermittent rain left the field slick, and was a factor in the ball getting past McCrory and Kuster.
"With the weather, the grass is all slippery," Gallardo said, "the ball is sliding everywhere, players are falling – one little mistake changes the whole game."
"It's a wet ground and the ball is going to skip," Jagitsch said. "You don't know where it's going to go. We got really unlucky on it, the ball skipped toward them and they finished on it."
Jagitsch turned away 14 of 15 shots on goal, and many of his saves of the spectacular variety. Sterling keeper Jared Fernandez was his equal by recording nine saves, and many of them were deflected at the last instant.
"The first 5 minutes we had three golden chances that we couldn't capitalize," Dixon coach Mahmoud Etemadi said, "and then again, we had a few more chances. That's how it is. That's why you never bet on a soccer match."
"You could say we should have finished a couple others, but at the same time, Dixon should have finished a couple too," Cebula said. "It's just how a game goes. Today, the luck kind of fell our way."
The game was a far cry from the teams' regular-season meetings. Sterling won 4-1 on the road, and then 4-0 at home.
"I give Dixon tons of credit," Cebula said. "We knew they were going to play hard, and they played very well."
With Jagitsch stonewalling the Warriors for all but one shot, the defense slowing down snipers like Gallardo and Tony Diaz, and the offense providing ample scoring opportunities, Etemadi noted it was his team's best game of the season.
"Our record is not indicative of the team we have," he said.
"I was hoping this would be our best game, because this is the one that really matters," Jagitsch said. "Regular-season doesn't matter at all. It's these games right now. It was definitely by far our best game. We kept them to one goal, and it was a cheap, little goal, but that's how soccer goes."
Star of the match: Carlos Gallardo, Sterling, goal
Key performers: Jared Fernandez, Sterling, 9 saves; Brandon Jagitsch, Dixon, 14 saves
Up next: Championship game, Sterling vs. Rochelle/Freeport, 4 p.m. Friday