Verona senior Eliot Popkewitz scored from 25 yards out in the 88th minute to propel the Wildcats to a 1-0 win over Madison West in the Division 1 Sun Prairie Sectional championship on Saturday at Madison College’s Goodman Pitch.

The goal paved the way for the Wildcats (19-1-2) to reach the state tournament for the first time in program history.

“I saw a little gap to take it through,” Popkewitz said. “I knew I was going to eventually shoot. I just pulled the trigger and I guess it all worked out.”

Popkewitz wasn’t surprised to see West goalkeeper Oscar Herrera stood tall in net for the majority of the game. He has grown accustomed to seeing dominance from his Madison 56ers club teammate.

“Oscar is a fantastic goalie,” Popkewitz said. “All props to him. We were lucky we were able to pull out a goal.”

The Wildcats beat the Regents 4-1 on Sept. 19 at Reddan Soccer Park. The rematch was a defensive battle.

After a scoreless first half in which scoring chances were hard to come by, the Wildcats focused on passing the ball quicker in the second half to generate more shots on goal.

In the 50th minute, Popkewitz fired a shot that went off Herrera’s hands and over the crossbar. The Wildcats appeared to capitalize on the ensuing corner kick after Herrera recovered the ball out of a scrum but the momentum took him across the goal line. The officials huddled and ruled that Herrera had stopped the shot before crossing the line..

“In these tight games, it’s frustrating when you get so close, but you just have to keep going,” Lynch said. “That is what we did and it paid off.”

Verona senior forward Bennett Luttinen hammered a shot just wide of the near post, and senior defender Tavion McNuckle’s low-lining shot to the near post went off Herrera’s hands and out of play in the 60th minute. The Wildcats did not have a corner kick in the first half, but had three in the first 25 minutes of the second half.

“We took control in the second half,” Verona coach Chris Handrick said. “We started to get our game back where we were getting corners. We started to possess more with our one-two touch.”

The Wildcats did have to deal with some adversity. Senior goalkeeper Nate Hanson was inadvertently punched in the face on a corner kick late in the second half, and had to leave the game before re-entering moments later.

“It gets a little messy,” Hanson said of defending corner kicks. “Whenever you see the ball coming in, it always goes way slower than what it actually is. As soon as it gets in the box and someone makes contact, it’s just chaos all around. I got hit in the face, but we got the ball out. That’s all that matters.”

Hanson said if the game would have remained tied after overtime and heading into a shootout, he was confident the Wildcats could pull out the win against the Regents (12-5-2).

“We all stuck together no matter what happened in this game,” he said. “I’m so glad I get to go (to state) with these boys.”

Verona earned the No. 1 seed in the Division 1 state tournament, and will play fourth-seeded Kenosha Tremper in the semifinals at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, at Uihlein Soccer Park in Milwaukee.

“These senior boys have the heart and the spirit,” Handrick said. “They deserve it. I would expect our boys to want to continue to take care of every step along the way. They want that state championship for Verona.”

Tremper defeated Kenosha Bradford/Reuther 1-0 in overtime in the sectional finals.

Second-seeded Eau Claire Memorial will take on third-seeded Neenah in the other state semifinal. Memorial shut out Appleton North 3-0, and Neenah knocked off Homestead 2-1 in overtime to reach state.

The top two-ranked teams coming into the postseason, No. 1 Marquette and No. 2 Arrowhead, lost in the sectional semifinals.

Verona 5, Middleton 3

Cold temperatures, snow flurries and a slick field didn’t slow the Wildcats in their sectional semifinal matchup against the Cardinals on Friday, Nov. 1, at Reddan Soccer Park.

Sam Abreu played a part in three of Verona’s goals, benefitting from an offense that looked to score early and often.

“The movement of our forwards allowed our midfielders to step up,” Abreu said. “That allowed us to diversify our attack and score goals.”

Verona led 2-1 at halftime, and tacked on two insurance goals early in the second half. A throw-in by Jack Knight found its way to Jonathan Gamez, who flicked a shot just over the reach of Middleton goalkeeper Nick Hinz in the 52nd minute. Popkewitz was taken down in the box three minutes later, and Abreu converted the penalty kick with a shot into the lower right corner.

Middleton (13-6-3) beat Hanson three times, but the senior goalkeeper came up with a pair of crucial saves for the Wildcats. Hanson made a diving save on a shot by Isaac Gueu in the 38th minute to preserve the 2-1 halftime lead, and denied Ezra Joseph with a diving stop in the 61st minute to keep it 4-1 Verona.

“It could have become a very different game if he doesn’t make those saves,” Handrick said of Hanson, who finished with five saves. “He’s a huge part of a defense that only allowed eight goals in the regular season.”

Hanson stopped Cian Carlson’s header off a free kick by Joseph in the 60th minute, but Carlson gathered the rebound and put it into the back of the net to cut the Wildcats’ lead to 4-2.

McNuckle seized a rare scoring opportunity in the 72nd minute, as he worked his way into the middle of the box, eluded three defenders and blasted a right-footed shot into the lower left corner of the net.

“I saw that their center back was trying the ball, so I came from behind and took it from him,” McNuckle said. “Then I saw a bunch of open space, cut in and beat two more defenders, and tucked it into the corner.”

Middleton’s Peter Tuttle scored off an assist by Max Rateau in the 75th minute, but Verona controlled possession for the remainder of the game.

The Wildcats put pressure on the Cardinals’ defense right away. Abreu was taken down near the north sideline in the 17th minute. Gannon Simonett corralled the ensuing free kick and blasted a right-footed shot past Hinz for the first tally.

“We wanted to come out hot so we had a cushion to play our game off of,” Simonett said. “I was just in the right spot, put my head down and buried it into the right corner.”

Lynch went unaccounted for on the back side of a corner kick by Abreu, and headed in the ball for a 2-0 Verona lead in the 29th minute.

Middleton’s Ben Tutewohl put a shot on goal in the 36th minute, and the ball slipped through Hanson’s hands and into the back of the net.