ROCHELLE – The biggest call of Friday's Class 2A Rochelle Regional championship match happened minutes before the clock started.
The call came on the coin toss. The Freeport Pretzels won the toss, chose to have the stiff wind at the Creason Sports Complex to be at their backs for the first half and then used it to their full advantage.
The Pretzels scored two quick goals and two more late in the first half, leading to a 5-0 win over the top-seeded Sterling Golden Warriors.
"We were really hoping to get the wind at our backs to start the match," Sterling coach Brian Cebula said. "We didn't win the coin toss. We talked about trying to keep the ball low, but we didn't execute that."
"The wind made a huge difference in the first half," Sterling defender Jorge Garcia said. "Our passes would get caught up in the air, so we couldn't set up our offense. On defense, their passes would go farther than we expected and get over our heads."
That's exactly what happened twice in the first 5 minutes of the match.
On the Pretzels' second possession, Logan Kuntz ran down a loose ball and had only goalkeeper Jared Fernandez to beat. Kuntz fired the shot into the corner of the goal with 37 minutes, 45 seconds leftf.
Three minutes later, the Pretzels again had a breakaway, and this time Adam Winters put the ball into the back of the net.
"Adam Winters is a kid that we've been missing for a lot of the season because of injury," Freeport coach Nick Namio said. "He came back for the first game of the regional for a few minutes. This was the first game that he played a lot of minutes, and he scored two goals for us."
The Warriors (15-4-4) seemed to adjust to the wind after the second goal, and controlled the ball for almost 10 minutes, but could not get a shot on goal.
The physical defensive play of the Pretzels denied the ball to prolific scoring forwards Carlos Gallardo and Tony Diaz.
"It felt like the momentum shifted there for awhile," Garcia said. "We started to run our offense and things look good, but they are a good team. They are a very good team in the air, so they were winning a lot of the 50/50 balls. If we had scored there, I think it would have been a different match."
Instead, the Pretzels (8-13-1) weathered the Sterling onslaught and waited for a chance to attack again.
With just under 3 minutes left in the half, Conor Greene gained possession just beyond midfield. Sterling was called for a penalty giving him a free kick from about 40 yards. Greene lined up and fired toward the goal. The shot sailed up into the far corner of the goal past the outstretched fingers of Fernandez to put Freeport up 3-0.
"I think the third goal really hurt," Cebula said. "The first two goals hurt, but we were able to get back on track. We felt like if we got to half down 2-0 that we'd have a chance with the wind at our backs."
It only got worse as the Pretzels attacked again. Winters broke free and scored with 30.1 seconds left in the half to go up 4-0.
"With the wind like this, we knew this could be a match where one team scored two or three goals in the first half, and the other team scored a few in the second," Namio said. "We wanted to be aggressive in the first half and take full advantage of the wind. The last two goals in the half were huge."
Sterling went to half looking to recover.
"The last time we played, we were up 3-0 at half," Garcia said. "Then we ended up tied 4-4. We told ourselves that we could come back, and we had to keep playing hard."
After the break, the Warriors had more chances on net, but the wind died down, taking the advantage away.
Freeport also packed in the defense to slow the Sterling attack.
Thomas Greene added an insurance score for the Pretzels with 25:08 left in the match.