WOODSTOCK – All week Marian Central soccer coach Jim Colvin had his team run three-minute drills in which they were down one goal and needed to score before time expired.
So it was fitting that the top-seeded Hurricanes found themselves in a situation during Friday's Class 2A Marian Central Regional final against No. 3 Woodstock North where they could call on that experience.
Just 51 seconds after the Thunder tied the score on a mad scramble at the net – a goal no one on the Thunder took credit for – Hurricanes senior midfielder Riley Blaz secured the ball off a feed from teammate Liam Gries in the waning minutes of his final home game. Blaz delivered a strike into the back of the net with 1:59 remaining, and the Hurricanes held on for a 4-3 win.
"It's truly unbelievable," Blaz said. "I couldn't have asked for a better way to end it here. ... We kept our heads up and played through it."
Marian (12-5-1) advances to Wednesday’s Grayslake North Sectional semifinal where they play Vernon Hills.
"We're all proud, it was a good season from all of us," Thunder senior defender Cody Kupsik said. "We're all glad about where we started to what we became."
The Hurricanes’ first regional title since 2009 didn’t come easily. Woodstock North (11-12-1) found new life with 18:21 remaining in the game, trailing 3-1. Thunder junior forward Chris Niese beat Marian’s goalkeeper to the ball in the box and flicked it toward the net. Two Marian defenders were in position to clear the ball but instead deflected it in for an own goal.
Clinging to a 2-1 lead approaching midway through the second half, Marian was searching for an insurance goal. Awarded a free kick at midfield, Blaz headed the ball on net off the kick, hitting the crossbar. But junior forward Connor Hull was there to finish the job, heading the ball into the net for a goal and 3-1 lead.
Ten minutes into the game, junior forward Hunter Labas found junior forward Liam Gries, who capitalized on the open look delivering a strike into the top right corner of the net.
"Again Liam's come into the game and made a huge impact," Colvin said.
Woodstock North (11-12-1) struggled to create against the Hurricanes’ defense in the first half, though it had two corner kick opportunities. With 20:39 remaining in the first half, Marian put together a counterattack off sophomore goalkeeper Jake Higgins’ save off Woodstock North’s corner. Higgins threw the ball ahead to Labas, who dribbled past midfield before finding Gries. Gries beat the Thunder's defense, and his goal gave Marian a 2-0 lead, which it took into halftime. Gries has scored four total goals in Marian's past two playoff games.
"I've been working hard, just kept at it," Gries said. "With the help of my teammates I've been able to get open."
The Thunder came out of the half playing more aggressive offensively and put pressure on the Hurricanes’ defense. They finally broke through off a long sideline throw in by Niese. Junior forward Julio Campos gathered possession of the ball at the net, but his shot was deflected. However, teammate Luis Balleno scored off the rebound as the ball snuck inside the right post to cut Marian’s lead to 2-1.
"It sums up [our season]," Thunder coach Lauren Farley said. "We were down 2-0 at half and they just fought and fought and fought. That's all you can ask your team to do, not get down on themselves and that is something I'm so proud they kept fighting through."