Chillicothe (Mo.) HS Soccer Hornets Play Odds Right Again, Reach State Quarterfinals
Sparked by early Albertson highlight save, powered by Corbin’s record goal, CHS KOs top seed Bishop LeBlond in district-title match at home Wednesday
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
Even though they had sustained a 3-1 loss to St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond on their own home turf at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II in early September, the Chillicothe (Mo.) High School soccer Hornets had good reason – one might say 18 good reasons, as in 18 consecutive victories since that loss – to have confidence they could seriously challenge the top seed in the Class 2 District 8 tournament in Wednesday night’s championship match.
What they likely didn’t realize was that, even as the No. 2 seed and a prior victim of the Golden Eagles this fall, the odds were, in a sense, with them. Not betting or prognosticating odds, but calendar-year ones that ultimately proved prophetic.
CHS owned district titles and state-tournament appearances in the last two seasons played in odd-numbered years (2017, 2019) and, after stunning the strongly-favored BLHS bunch 1-0 with impenetrable defense and goalkeeping and senior forward Chace Corbin’s team-record 33rd goal of the season, now they own the 2021 crown, too.
Sparked – and perhaps given a sense of destiny – by a sensational, leaping, 1-handed save by senior goalkeeper Jaxon Albertson in the ninth of the 80 minutes of play, Chillicothe battled the St. Joseph Catholic school’s club to a scoreless standoff through one half, then used an out-of-the-blue play about 12 minutes into the second to seize a lead they jealously and zealously protected the rest of the 22-plus minutes of the match.
“What an incredible match!” veteran Chillicothe head coach Tim Cunningham reacted to the conquest, which captured the fourth district title and state-tourney appearance of Cunningham’s 11-years tenure as head coach.
“These kids – they played so hard, so confident. I just loved our composure, the way we played tonight, and then the skill just took over. I thought we played really, really well.”
“We knew this was going to be a match that was going to be tough from the ‘jump’ and our guys were locked in in warmups – focused, determined,” the CHS coach disclosed.
He saluted a large and vocal turnout of CHS students and Hornets fans for helping spur the booters on to their much-sought victory.
“I want to thank all the students that came out to support our team tonight, and also a special thank you to all the families of our players that have been with us all season,” the coach pronounced.
“What an incredible night to be a Hornet!”
The match between Midland Empire Conference programs was evenly played, generally. Each team’s defense was effective in avoiding breakdowns and preventing many high-danger scoring chances, yet each offense had cracks at breaking the scoring ice, only to be denied by up-to-the-challenge goalkeeping through the first 50-plus minutes.
For Chillicothe, the overlapping or layered coverage by the back line of Nate King, Logan Distler, Josh Adams, and Tyler Stephens won its share of one-on-one battles all night and covered for each other when such duels were lost to the skilled feet of the Bishop LeBlond forwards.
“Our guys did a great job of being physical and making sure we had our marks,” the Hornets head coach assessed about 15 minutes after the match as the celebration continued nearby.
“Our guys do a great job of that (layering) in practice and they do a great job of that in matches. (BLHS junior midfielder Adan Seiter) we wanted to double(-team) a little bit more, if we could, and we were able to do that some and keep it off his foot. He’s such a talented player.”
On the rare occasions the Golden Eagles found creases to launch shots that reached senior ’keeper Jaxon Albertson was “on the case.”
As it turned out, top-seeded Bishop LeBlond’s toughest test of Albertson, who was injured and missed the teams’ first meeting of the season in early September, came very early and he aced it.
Off a left sideline throw-in deep in the CHS defensive third of the Bob Fairchild Field pitch, the ball found its way about head-high to the center of the pitch and within about 10 yards. There, a Golden Eagle – his back to the net – jumped and made a “bicycle kick” that sent the ball toward the goal with good velocity and about eight feet off ground, just below crossbar height.
Having needed to be near his right goalpost as the ball was thrown in, Albertson still was near it, but drifting to his left in concert with the ball moving toward the center of the pitch.
When the “bicycle kick” was launched with excellent accuracy, the Hornets goalkeeper immediately responded while still moving laterally just off his line.
Leaping off one foot as he went right to left, Albertson extended his mitted right arm as high as he could not in an attempt to catch the ball, but in hopes of either tipping it up and over the crossbar and out of play or redirecting it in a manner which prevented it entering the goal while remaining in play.
He managed the latter, getting enough of the ball to turn it 90 degrees and send it parallel to the goal line and bouncing past the left goalpost (from the defense’s perspective). Fortunately for the hosts, a Chillicothe defender was the first player to reach it, kicking the ball high into the air and a distance upfield that relieved the immediate threat.
Within seconds, the Hornets had gained control of the ball and moved it all the way out of danger, reprieved from facing the early deficit by Albertson’s acrobatic save.
“That save tonight – that’s one of the best ones I’ve seen since I’ve been coaching,” praised Cunningham, who spent a couple of years as an assistant prior to the start of his head coaching tenure. “That was such a huge save for the moment early in the match, keeping them out of (the lead).”
Chillicothe’s offense challenged BLHS senior ’keeper Marcos Dominguez moderately a couple of times in the match’s first four minutes and forced him to be on the alert regularly without having any clear shooting opportunities from short range.
After the first half ended in a scoreless deadlock, CHS forward Drake Cosgrove, co-owner with long-time teammate Corbin of the CHS single-season goal-scoring record with 32 this season, had Chillicothe’s best opportunity to date. He sent a sharp, rising shot toward the Golden Eagles goal from about 20 yards out in the middle, only to have Dominguez be in the right spot to making a leaping stop of his own in the 44th minute.
About six minutes later, attacking from farther to his right, Cosgrove tested Dominguez again, drilling a rising shot toward the far, right side of the goal. Again, the BLHS ’keeper passed the exam, deflecting a good distance wide of the right post to keep the score level at 0-0.
In the aftermath of that, the ball was taken up the middle third where each side labored to create a new scoring chance of any quality, but without any notable success.
Then, without warning, a seemingly-innocuous advance of the ball up the left side toward midfield by Chillicothe launched the eventually-decisive sequence of the match.
As the ball came to Hornets senior Ben Cueni-Smith, overtime hero of CHS’ unexpectedly-tense, double-overtime victory over Savannah in the district tourney’s semifinals two nights before, he observed that Bishop LeBlond’s just-repelled effort to generate the match’s first scoring had involved all but one of its 10 “field” players (non-goalkeepers) up to near or beyond midfield. Far ahead of him in the middle of the pitch were a lone deep defender and Corbin.
With the Golden Eagles defender near him giving him room, so as not to risk being beaten on a dribble attack, Cueni-Smith went for broke, pounding a long, high drive from just on the CHS side of the 120-yards field’s midfield stripe toward the deep middle of the BLHS defensive third of the pitch for his teammate and the deep defender to try to track down.
As the ball sailed upfield and then descended toward the artificial turf within 10 yards of the 18-yards-deep Bishop LeBlond penalty area, Corbin and the defender were virtually stride for stride on the dead run, with the Hornet just behind.
As the ball was about to land, the defender extended a leg to try to “catch” the ball and steer it away from Corbin, but, in doing so, gave the Hornet a chance to catch up to him and make a play on the just-deadened ball. In doing so, Corbin described for the C-T afterward, “We just caught our feet together and he fell and I took advantage of it.”
“Chace had one opportunity, (one) really clean look at it, and just buried it,” praised his head coach.
As the Bishop LeBlond defender tumbled to the turf, the Chillicothe forward tapped the ball forward and into the penalty area with only Dominguez between himself and the contest’s first goal.
Still angling a bit to his left as he slowed his momentum, Corbin found the BLHS goalkeeper surprisingly still back close to the goal line, perhaps in expectation of an official’s whistling of a foul on Corbin for causing his teammate’s fall. It wasn’t until the CHS standout was within 10 yards of him that the netminder started out in earnest to challenge him and by then it was too late.
From about five or seven yards away, Corbin pulled the trigger on a right-foot shot that easily eluded the goalkeeper and rose several feet off the ground as it sailed into the goal after 52:33 of play. His CHS-record 33rd goal of the season – snapping a tie with Cosgrove – off Cueni-Smith’s 10 assist of the 2021 season had given the Hornets a lead to protect.
They proved up to that task, despite multiple Bishop LeBlond thrusts to try to get the equalizer.
On one, a momentary partial lapse of coverage within about 25 yards of the CHS goal let a Golden Eagles pass across the goal face from left to right lead an attacker into open space and a brief open look at the goal with only Albertson in the way. However, with little time available before a pursuing Hornet caught up, the BLHS player’s on-the-run shot from perhaps 16 yards away didn’t get hooked enough and sailed harmlessly at least five yards wide of the near (left) goalpost.
Finally, with the Hornets having shifted fully to defensive mode with nine of their 11 players back inside their own defensive third, a battle for the ball on the offensive left side near the Golden Eagles bench produced a whistle from the referee and a foul called on a CHS player. With the match clock only seconds away from entering the last minute of regulation time, a dangerous direct free kick was awarded the top-seeded visitors.
Spotting the ball perhaps five yards in from the east sideline of Bob Fairchild Field and 27 yards out from the goal/end line, the free kick was easily within range for being a possible dangerous shot on goal. It also could strategically be utilized as a high, soft pass into the goalmouth area for a possible header by one of the half-dozen BLHS players gathered in front of the net or, lacking that, a scramble opportunity in which a foot shot might be attempted. Even an “own goal” – a Chillicothe player trying to keep the ball away from a foe and inadvertently directing into the net – was a not-remote possibility.
With the stadium’s public address announcer having just intoned that there were only 60 seconds now left, the chosen Bishop LeBlond player launched the ball goalward with his right foot, having opted or being instructed to try to score directly. As the ball rose over the multi-player “wall” of three Hornets 10 yards from the point of contact, it turned out to have the wrong combination of elevation and velocity, sailing toward the net, but being several feet above the crossbar. As it sailed harmlessly out of play, providing Chillicothe with an unobstructed goal kick as the clock continued to tick down, the final bullet had been ducked.
As Bishop LeBlond scrambled to get to the goal kick with barely a half-minute to go, the ball ricocheted to a Hornet, who blasted the ball high and far toward the sideline on the nearly-empty Golden Eagles’ end of the pitch. When the ball rolled out of bounds, requiring a BLHS throw-in nearly 100 yards away from the Chillicothe goal, the Hornets’ trip to state play – beginning with a quarterfinal match at the District 7 champion (either top-seeded Harrisonville or Kansas City: Barstow) on Saturday, Nov. 13, was assured. The District 7 championship is to be decided Thursday (Nov. 4) at Kansas City: St. Pius X’s pitch.
“I’m just so proud of all our guys,” lauded Cunningham. “…Our guys just played so well and so hard and so well together. Great teamwork and great chemistry like we’ve had this last 18 games.”
Statistically, Chillicothe’s record-extending 20th triumph of the season and 18th in a row – it has not lost since falling to Bishop LeBlond early – technically delivered the Hornets’ fourth state-tourney appearance ever. However, because of expansion of the number of classifications last year from three to four, with fewer teams and districts in Class 2, the 2021 state bracket is only three rounds deep, instead of the long-traditional four.
So, when the Hornets next take the field in competition, it will be a state quarterfinals match – the first a CHS soccer squad (male or female) has ever taken part in. Prevail in it and the Hornets would head on to the Nov. 19-20 Class 2 state semifinals and finals at Fenton in southwest St. Louis County.
In denying Bishop LeBlond any goals and thus leveling the programs’ all-time postseason record against each other at 2-2, Chillicothe posted its 10th shutout of the season, second-most in team history behind the 2012 club.
“Any time you beat a team like this – their program speaks for itself,” the Chillicothe coach reflected, “… for us to be able to get them tonight in front of an incredible student section and an incredible crowd means a lot for our program and where we are and what we hope to keep building.”
For Albertson, who was officially credited with six saves – “including one incredible one to earn the ‘clean sheet,’” Cunningham observed, it was his ninth whitewash of the year. That’s also second all-time for a season to 2012 ’keeper Troy Toedebusch.
“Jaxon’s so important to us,” the head coach stated. “He was recovering from a separated shoulder the first time we played (Bishop LeBlond).”
Albertson returned from the injury after missing only a couple of matches and “has been playing lights out since then,” Cunningham praised. Albertson has been in goal for all of the 18 matches won consecutively.
As with almost any shutout, the line of defense directly in front of the goalkeeper played a huge role.
“I thought our defense was just rock-solid all night,” Cunningham commented, “… keeping them out of their transition game and also we marked really well on set pieces. They’re pretty dangerous on corner kicks and direct (free) kicks. We talked about that a little bit” during Tuesday’s practice.
Offensively, Cueni-Smith’s 10th assist gives this year’s squad four players (Cueni-Smith, Cosgrove, Corbin and Sam Reeter) with double-figures assists.
Corbin’s at least temporary passage of Cosgrove for the team’s single-season goals record continued that pair’s near-total responsibility for putting the ball in the net this season. Together, they now have 65 of the Hornets’ 75 goals. They’ve also assisted on many of each other’s goals to the tune of 32 combined assists – a record 20 by Corbin.
Despite that, Corbin says the classmates and long-time duo on the pitch don’t feel, prior to matches, any undue strain to produce.
“We don’t feel any pressure because we’ve been doing this for 13 years (since beginning to play youth club ball locally) and we’ve been doing it together,” he commented to the C-T. Since beginning in the Green Hills Soccer Club, he continued, “We’ve been building a lot of chemistry.”