It’s not how well you are playing soccer in April. It’s about how well you are playing soccer after the middle of May.
That might not have been the mindset of the Western Dubuque boys soccer team, but that’s what the Bobcats proved when they handed Hempstead a 1-0 loss in their showdown match of the opening round of the substate tournament played in Dubuque May 20.
Nathan Gehl, who scored the Bobcats’ only goal of the game in his team’s 2-1 loss to Hempstead back on April 9, blasted the game-winning shot past goalie Timothy Robinson early in the second half to give Western Dubuque a 1-0 win in the rematch between the two Mississippi Valley Conference rivals. Caden Reinke’s header helped the Bobcats keep control of the ball and allowed Wyatt Lynch the opportunity to make a centering pass to Gehl who did the rest. Both Reinke and Lynch were credited with assists on the play.
“We just wanted it a lot more than they did tonight. The pressure and the desire to make it past the first round of substate really pushed them,” said Cole Burger, Western Dubuque’s goalie. “We were hungry to come back and beat Hempstead this game.”
“I told these boys when we started this journey that the games that matter are played in late May and in June,” said Cliff Conrad, head coach of the Bobcats. “They played the way we had always talked about and got the win. This was a very satisfying win for us.”
The Bobcats dodged a bullet in the first half when an early goal by Hempstead was waved off after Burger was ruled to have been pushed into the goal holding the ball after making a save on a hotly contested corner kick. After that tense moment, the Bobcats’ defense adjusted and made it tough for Hempstead to get off a quality shot on goal the rest of the first half.
Neither team was able to get the ball past the goalies in the first 40 minutes of play, but the Bobcats took the field to start the second half of the match with a renewed sense of urgency after getting a firm talking to by their coach at halftime.
“Every game so far this season, I’ve seen the best in them when we’re two or three goals down because that’s when they start to fight and want it. So in the locker room at halftime, I wrote on the board that the score was 2-0. This is where we are. How are you going to play?” said Conrad. “We even talked about it on the bus ride to the stadium. I laid the challenge out for them and they responded. All the credit to those guys for showing up and playing the way we’ve talked about all season long. They did it. They controlled the game. They had a lot of great moments.”
Gehl’s goal was scored with 35:31 left on the clock. Instead of handing the game over to their defense, Conrad challenged his banged-up, underhanded and under-experienced offensive line to control possession of the ball along with maybe scoring an insurance run.
The Bobcats’ front line also helped out. When they weren’t making runs toward the goal trying to take a two-goal lead, they challenged the Mustangs every time they’d try to make an offensive push toward their goal.
Hempstead kept coming. With less than two minutes left in the game, the Mustangs got off a shot in close range that hit the crossbar. There were many other shots and many other chances, but all of them were turned back by Burger and his big gloves as the Bobcats held on.
“The last 20 minutes were a little nervy, but we got some big stops from Cole. He played well all night long,” said Conrad. “(All the credit goes) to the boys. They’ve been the ones putting in the work. I’m just the one who stands there and tells them what to do and they do it. Big shout out to the fans who come out and support us so well each and every night.”