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updated: 10/27/2012 12:04 AM

Happy ending favors Stevenson

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By Mike Garofola
Daily Herald Correspondent

A better script could not have been written for Friday's sectional soccer final.

Libertyville vs. Stevenson -- two storied programs led by distinguished coaches Andy Bitta and Mark Schartner with a combined 750-plus career victories.

There have been countless matches between these clubs over the years, yet never one quite this deep into the postseason.

Alex Smith and Joseph Hugener helped write themselves and their mates into Stevenson lore with back-to-back strikes to complete a brilliant comeback, giving the Patriots (18-3-1) a memorable 5-3 victory over their longtime rivals in the Conant sectional championship.

With a trip to the 3A state tournament within reach, the Patriots await their supersectional opponent at Glenbrook South on Tuesday.

They will play the winner of today's match between Lane Tech and Glenbrook North today at New Trier.

"It would have still been a remarkable comeback even if we fell short tonight, but there was never any quit in this team tonight, and all season long, on a team filled with a great bunch of young men," said Stevenson coach Mark Schartner. "They are great young men who have fought hard and dealt with a lot of issues, on and off the field. For that, I am thankful for their collective efforts to finally get us farther than any other Stevenson team has gone before."

It was Stevenson's first sectional championship trophy in program history.

"We were up 3-1 almost at the half, after playing a great first half, then we gave up that late goal, and they just came at us and never let up until they got the lead for good," said Bitta, who watched his club surrender 4 unanswered goals to a devastating Patriots attack.

"We never lost our composure," said Smith, who fired in the first of two at 48 minutes to help pull the No. 2 seed back level. "We didn't hang our heads after giving up 3 goals, something we never do, and that's the way this team has been all year long."

Austin Bitta, a constant thorn in the Pats' side along with Lloyd Chatfield and Tomide Owolabi during the opening period, curled in a 20-yard freekick past a diving Quentin Low to end a 6-game shutout streak by the Pats marvelous keeper.

A 10th-minute goal from Ryan Puszka tied the game at 1-1 before Owolabi netted his pair.

"Coming into this match I never would have thought we would give up 3 goals but score 5 ourselves against a great team like Libertyville," Hugener said.

The first 40 minutes had to be a thrill for those who enjoy attacking football.

Each side played quickly, with creative genius and thought through midfield.

There was a patient buildup and even a little direct and over-the-top soccer to keep both backlines on edge and ready for just about anything their opponent might pour forward.

"That might have been the best we've attacked, as a team, all season long," said Hugener, who along with Michael Weinstein, Toshiki Niimi, Puszka, Smith and others had too much pace and energy for the Wildcats as the second half began.

Schartner brought in junior Ceasar Navarro five minutes from intermission, and the hardworking striker immediately put his stamp on the match.

After Owolabi doubled the Wildcats lead at 23 minutes, Navarro, Hugener, Puszka and Drexler helped keep the Wildcats' back line on its heels in the final minutes.

Drexler's header off a Niimi serve ended in the back of the net to pull the Patriots closer. The goal put the Pats' fans in greater voice after fearing the worst when Libertyville (17-3-1) had build its 2-goal lead.

"I thought we played a pretty good first half even after giving up those 3 goals," Smith said. "Then we came out and got a great start in the second half, and got even right away, and after that we never let up."

While Low and his back line mates took on the role of spectators, the Patriots offense was headed into the Libertyville end for the first quarter-hour of the period.

Smith kept his low drive on the floor to go past Alec Schory at 43 minutes following four consecutive corners.

When the Wildcats were unable to clear yet another corner, Niimi collected a loose ball out top and quickly put Smith through for the go-ahead goal in the 51st minute.

A rampant Patriots side didn't waste time to add another goal.

This time, after some flashy combination work from Drexler and Moelaart, Hugener was set free, and found enough time and space to tee up his close-range strike.

This 15-minute high octane performance all but ensured a Patriots' victory.

Although the Wildcats didn't give in, the 2-goal advantage seemed far too much to overcome against the Patriots, whose confidence continued to grow with each passing minute.

"We were not organized at all in the back on all of their corners and dead balls," Bitta said. "And we just didn't match their energy once they got going. They deserved their victory."

"It's hard to believe after all these years and all of the victories and great teams and players that have gone through that we've never been in a game this important until tonight," Schartner said. "It feels great to get through, and I am very proud of each and every player on this team."

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