After two straight overtime losses at home, the ‘Cats just wouldn’t allow themselves to have another major letdown.
A header from senior midfielder Chris Ritter made sure that didn’t happen, and the No. 14 Wildcats (8-3, 1-1 Big Ten) took down the Northern Illinois Huskies (3-8) 1-0 under the lights at Lakeside Field on Wednesday night.
Perhaps the bigger story, though, is the injury to freshman midfielder Brandon Medina that occurred in the 25th minute, which sidelined him for the rest of the game. Medina was tied for the Big Ten lead in assists going into the game and was a huge reason behind the Wildcats’ success so far. Nothing has been released yet on the extent of his injury.
“We’ll make some adjustments without him,” Coach Lenahan said. While the loss is a big blow to the program, he was happy with how the team adapted without its freshman sensation. “I thought [senior midfielder] Lepe Seetane went inside and did a great job, and I thought [sophomore defender] Henry Herrill did a great job in the second half really defending for us.”
The first half was an offensive struggle for the ‘Cats, who only managed three shots on goal. They didn’t look like the same team that went into this game tied for the Big Ten lead in goals with 21.
Several times they tried to give sophomore forward Joey Calistri the ball in space, but each time he was met by a swarm of Huskie defenders. In the 33rd minute, with no defender in his face, he nearly had his NCAA leading 11th goal of the season, but his attempt went just wide left.
While the Huskies haven’t had much success this season, they certainly played better than their record indicates. In the first half, they put constant pressure on the Wildcat defense and nearly had two goals.
Their best opportunity came with eight minutes left in the half, when they had been awarded a free kick just outside the goal-box. Jayson LeSeth lined up and booted it towards the net, but it went right to junior goalkeeper Tyler Miller, who didn’t have to move an inch. It was the Huskies’ only shot on goal of the first half.
At the end of 45 minutes, the score read 0-0. It’s only the fifth time this season that the ‘Cats failed to score by halftime.
They responded by coming out aggressive in the second half and showing signs of why they have one of the most dynamic offenses in the nation, with three shots in the first two minutes. Still, they had nothing to show for it.
Then, in the 57th minute, they found their breakthrough. Senior defender Scott Lakin took a free kick from just past the midfield line, right toward Ritter about 10 yards from the net.
“I tried to give him [Lakin] a little wave. I think he saw me and tried to play it for me,” Ritter said.
Just like an NBA center, Ritter boxed out his marker, created some space and knocked in his fourth goal of the season. The whole sequence took about three seconds.
“I tried to put myself in a position to score and I got lucky,” he said. “From that distance, you kind of just try to put the ball in the box and see what happens. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t.”
It was an unusual goal, but it counted nonetheless. Now the question was, would the ‘Cats be able to protect their lead?
For a while, it looked as if this would be a daunting task. After the Huskies found themselves facing a deficit, they really picked it up on the offensive end after having done very little with the ball coming out of the half. They forced Tyler Miller to make several big saves for the ‘Cats defense.
Whatever momentum the ‘Cats might have had after their goal was long gone by this point, as the Huskies were clearly outplaying them on both ends.
With less than six minutes to go, the Huskies had another huge opportunity, as they earned a free kick from about 25 yards out. James Stevenson, the Huskies’ leading scorer, wound up and drilled it, but the ball just missed the left post by about a foot.
It turned out to be their final legitimate goal scoring chance, as the ‘Cats barely hung on for a narrow victory, avoiding what would have been their third straight overtime game.
“Sometimes playing in a really tough game like this, you come together. It worked out the way it’s supposed to work out,” Lenahan said. “To be really able to grind one out here is good, because there are grind games coming ahead where hopefully we are going to have to protect the lead, and hopefully we have the same outcome again.”
The Wildcats’ next test is at home against Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on Saturday.