Clutch goals, crisp passing, stifling defense and crucial saves were hallmarks of Verona’s season.
True to their form, the Wildcats controlled the Division 1 state championship Saturday, Nov. 9, against Neenah and emerged with a 2-0 victory at Uihlein Soccer Park in Milwaukee to win the program’s first golden ball.
“The way we possessed the ball was our style to the max,” Verona coach Chris Handrick said. “What we saw was the end result of their full hearts coming alive.
“Coming into this season, they knew they wanted to bring home the gold ball. Their focus, work ethic and unified mindset in every practice and game was unmatchable.”
Verona (21-1-2) defended its top seed at the state tournament with three shutouts to end the season. It was the Wildcats’ 17th shutout of the season and eighth in their last 10 games.
Senior goalkeeper Nate Hanson made a diving save to his left in the 8th minute, and denied Neenah’s Cristian Quinonez at close range in the 25th minute.
“I’ve played with some of these guys for four years, and others since I was 10,” Hanson said. “Being able to hang up the boots after playing so well down the stretch with these guys is amazing.”
The Wildcats outshot the Rockets 19-9 (9-3 on goal), and finished with a 9-3 advantage in corner kicks.
For the third straight game, Eliot Popkewitz scored first. The senior midfielder controlled a centering pass by classmate Gannon Simonett, and sent a right-footed strike into the lower right corner of the net for his 13th goal of the season at the 13:04 mark of the first half.
Neenah goalkeeper Ian Bogan stopped a header by Popkewitz in the 10th minute, but the Verona captain remained confident.
“We come into every game knowing we’re the better team,” he said. “We have the quality of players who can move the ball wherever we want. When we started pressing, I just knew that we had them right where we wanted them.”
Neenah (18-2-3), which was making its 17th state appearance, stayed in the game thanks in large part to Bogan. He denied senior forward Jack Knight in the 18th minute, and stopped a mid-air shot by junior Sam Abreu two minutes later.
Verona senior defender Diego Luna had a rare scoring opportunity in the 56th minute, but Bogan made a diving save. Abreu had a shot saved in the 57th minute, Knight’s left-footed blast in the 60th minute sailed just over the crossbar, and junior Jonathan Gamez curled a right-footed strike into Bogan’s arms.
The Rockets’ best scoring chance came off a corner kick in the 77th minute. The ball skimmed off Hanson’s fingertips as he was knocked to the ground in a mad scrum, but sophomore defender Brooks Luttinen cleared the ball at the goal line.
“I was a little nervous with everyone coming at me, but I knew I had to get it out,” Luttinen said.
Verona finally broke through for the insurance goal it was looking for at the 86:09 mark. Gamez controlled a long pass by senior defender Tavion McNuckle, cut to his left and sent a left-footed strike into the lower right corner of the net for his 13th goal of the season.
“That was incredible. I couldn’t believe it,” Gamez said. “We fought all game for that goal. I knew the goalie was going to come out on me, so all I needed was the touch and finish.”
Verona 3, Kenosha Tremper 0
Stout defense and relentless offense propelled the Wildcats past the Trojans in the state semifinals Friday, Aug. 8.
Tremper (11-8-2) struggled to find scoring opportunities against Verona’s back line. The Wildcats outshot the Trojans 25-7 (13-3 on goal), and finished with a 9-3 advantage on corner kicks.
“What’s made them successful is their mindset,” Handrick said of his team’s defense. “They’re unified and understand each other’s positions well enough that they can rotate.”
The Trojans tested Verona’s defense right away, as Hanson made a save off a corner kick 40 seconds into the game. Tremper’s Vincent Bennage was one-on-one with Hanson in the 4th minute, but blasted a shot over the crossbar.
Popkewitz, who scored the game-winning goal in Verona’s 1-0 victory over Madison West in the sectional finals, got the Wildcats on the board in the 10th minute. Tremper goalkeeper Ben Wajerski initially denied Popkewitz, but the senior midfielder followed the rebound and powered the ball into the back of the net.
“Once we went ahead, I could definitely see the guys relax and realize that we were doing just fine,” Popkewitz said. “We played good soccer and everything worked out fine.”
Verona nearly added an insurance goal off a corner kick in the 22nd minute, as Tremper defender Alex Wajerski stood his ground in front of the goal line and headed the ball out of the box.
Knight gave the Wildcats the insurance tally they were looking for in the 49th minute. The senior striker took a pass from Abreu and placed a shot into the lower left corner of the net for his team-high 15th goal of the season.
“Before the game, I was watching videos on YouTube about how to penetrate space better,” Knight said. “One of the tips is if you have the ball and don’t see anybody in front of you, take a shot. I took that to heart.”
Both teams nearly scored in the 57th minute. Abreu denied Tremper at the goal line, and Bennett Luttinen’s header off a Sam Lynch free kick sailed just over the crossbar.
The Wildcats tacked on another goal early in the 74th minute. Knight flicked a back-heel pass to classmate Simonett, who blasted a right-footed shot into the top left corner of the net for his eighth goal of the season.
“It was one of those shots where you hit the ball and didn’t even feel like you hit it. You know it’s going in the back of the net,” Simonett said. “I saw the bench look at it after I struck it, and I knew it was going in.”
Hanson made a diving save two minutes later to preserve the shutout.