Owls earn Final Four respect
Unranked all season, the Marshall boys' soccer team will return to the MSHSAA Class 2 Championships for the first time since 2003.
They're small, more quick than fast, and exhibit little flash, but the Owls are hardly Rodney Dangerfield material. No team could be when led by exquisite striker Jon Najera, whose two second-half goals Saturday were the difference in a come-from-behind 2-1 decision over Bolivar in the state quarterfinal round.
"It's great to have him out there," MHS head coach Josh Posegate remarked about the all-state senior. "I'm proud of all the guys' work."
As well he should be. Although Najera made the shots, Marshall got stellar play from many. Seniors Ebert Alvarez and Omar Farfan -- whose brother Hugo was on the Owls' two Final Four squads -- and junior Alan Magana controlled the midfield.
Senior Santiago Alarcon and junior Erik Moreño applied offensive heat, while juniors José Reyes and Carlos Campos -- along with sophomore Wilber Palma -- kept some talented Liberators to get many good looks at the net.
"It was great to have them back," noted senior goalkeeper Jacob Phillips about the return from injuries of Campos and Palma. "We got to play the way we're used to playing."
It was a physical match, which was shown when Bolivar scored in the 17th minute. Senior Matt Magana spearheaded the Liberator attack with a drive swatted away by Phillips, who was knocked down. The ball was loose and junior Timothy Armstrong guided it into the net.
"I went for the ball and a couple us ran into each other," Phillips explained. "It rolled right to Bolivar."
Moreño was close to breakaways on a pair of plays within a 90-second span. A pass from Alvarez set up a 15-yard kick which went wide to the right and was preparing to attack on a "through" ball by Alarcon when he was tripped in the box, which officials failed to penalize.
Alarcon had a turn-and-shoot try from 10 yards out, but junior 'keeper Conner Stillwagon didn't have to move to stop it. Things went much the same for the Owls early in the second half. Twice within a minute, Moreño settled the ball off his header for close-range shots, but couldn't put either within the frame.
Finally, a push in the box gave Marshall a penalty kick, which Najera converted into the lower right corner in the 25th minute to tie the match. Only 52 seconds later, Najera stole a clearing pass and unleashed a low-trajectory drive from 40 yards away which bounced once two steps to Stillwagon's right and banged in off the left post.
"I meant to curve it in," Najera said. "The goalkeeper didn't see the bounce."
The Liberators (19-8) didn't get another shot on goal during the final 13 minutes and the celebration was on.
"It's about keeping your head in the game," Najera explained Marshall's resilience. "You can't get desperate for a goal. You just have to keep playing the game."
When Posegate took over the program three years ago, the Owls (24-2) were coming off a 10-14 season, but have steadily progressed since then -- claiming shares of their first two NCMC titles -- and have set a new school record for wins in a season.
"I knew there was a lot of talent coming back," Posegate said. "This was the pinnacle we wanted to reach."
When Marshall takes the pitch Friday in the state semifinal round against No. 7 Smithville, it will be the culmination of years of work by a group of players who love the sport -- many of whom recall the program's earlier glory.
"It goes real deep to all of us," Phillips declared. "It's been the goal for the season. It's awesome."