CHS soccer boys play odds right again, win title

Early Albertson save, Corbin’s record goal spark Hornets past LeBlond, to state

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Thanks to a brilliantly-played 1-0 home victory over top-seeded St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond Wednesday night (Nov. 3), the 2021 Chillicothe (Mo.) HS soccer Hornets are Class 2 District 8 champions and headed to the state tournament quarterfinals Nov. 13.
Chillicothe High School soccer Hornets senior forward/midfielder Chace Corbin finishes off an unimpeded break-in on the St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond goal with a shot that produced the only goal in CHS' 1-0 Class 2 District 8 championship-match victory at Chillicothe's Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. The goal was Corbin's CHS-record 33rd of the season.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

Even though they had lost 3-1 to St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond on their own Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II turf in early September, the Chillicothe 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 challenge the top seed in the Class 2 District 8 tournament’s Wednesday night (Nov. 3) championship match.

What they likely didn’t realize was that 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 from the last two seasons played in odd-numbered years (2017, 2019) and, after stunning Bishop LeBlond 1-0 with impenetrable defense and goalkeeping and senior forward Chace Corbin’s team-record 33rd goal of the season Wednesday, it now owns 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 private 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 his 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!”

Members of the Chillicothe High School soccer Hornets and student fans celebrate together just off Bob Fairchild Field at Chillicothe's Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II Wednesday (Nov. 3, 2021) right after CHS' 1-0 Class 2 District 8 championship-match victory over top-seeded St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond.

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).”

On the rare occasions the Golden Eagles found creases to launch shots that reached CHS’ senior ’keeper, Albertson was “on the case.”

As it turned out, top-seeded Bishop LeBlond’s toughest test of Albertson, who missed the teams’ first meeting in early September with an injury, came very early and he aced it.

Off a left sideline throw-in, a Golden Eagle – his back to the CHS net about 10 yards away – 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.

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 and got enough of the ball to turn it 90 degrees, sending it parallel to the goal line and bouncing past the left goalpost (from the defense’s perspective).

Within seconds, the Hornets had gained control of the ball and moved it out of danger, reprieved from facing an early deficit by Albertson’s acrobatic heroics.

“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 netminder 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 until it scored.

After the first half ended in a scoreless deadlock, CHS forward Drake Cosgrove, co-owner with long-time teammate Corbin at match’s start of the CHS single-season goal-scoring record with 32 this season, had Chillicothe’s best opportunity of the first 50 minutes. 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 four minutes into the second segment.

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 the BLHS ’keeper deflected a good distance wide of the right post to keep the score level at 0-0.

In the aftermath of that save, 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’ double-overtime victory over Savannah in the tourney’s semifinals two nights before, he observed only a lone defender and Corbin far ahead of him in the middle of the pitch. He quickly pounded a long, high drive from just on the CHS side of the midfield stripe toward the deep middle of the BLHS defensive third of the pitch.

As the ball descended within 10 yards of the 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 control the ball and steer it away from Corbin. However, in doing so, not only gave the Hornet a chance to catch up and make a play on the just-deadened ball, but left himself slightly off-balance. As both players stretched for the ball, the defender tumbled to the turf.

“We just caught our feet together and he fell and I took advantage of it,” Corbin described for the C-T afterward.

Now undefended, the Chillicothe forward tapped the ball forward, still angling to his left as he slowed his momentum. Surprisingly, he found the BLHS goalkeeper still back close to the goal line, perhaps in expectation of an official’s whistling of a foul on Corbin related to his teammate’s fall. It wasn’t until the CHS standout was within 10 yards of him that the netminder crept  out a bit to challenge him, but by then it was too late.

From only five 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. The last came on a direct free kick from near the offensive left sideline of Bob Fairchild Field and 27 yards out from the goal/end line as the clock dropped under one minute remaining. When that attempt carried over the goal and out of play, Chillicothe was virtually assured of the victory.

As Bishop LeBlond scrambled to get to the ensuing CHS goal kick, the ball ricocheted to Cosgrove, who blasted the ball high and far toward the sideline on the nearly-empty Golden Eagles’ end of the pitch. When it 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 Saturday, Nov. 13, quarterfinal match at District 7 champion Harrisonville was assured.

“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.”

The District 7 championship was decided Thursday at Kansas City: St. Pius X’s pitch when Harrisonville nipped KC: Barstow 4-3 in double overtime.

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 leveling its all-time postseason record against Bishop LeBlond 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 officially was 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 shoulder 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 consecutive triumphs.

As with almost any shutout, the line of defense directly in front of the goalkeeper played an indispensable 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. That matches the 2012 team for most with at least 10.

Corbin’s at-least-temporary passing 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 Green Hills Soccer Club youth ball locally) and we’ve been doing it together,” he commented to the C-T. “We’ve been building a lot of chemistry.”