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Section 2a boys soccer: Champs! Trojans are going to state

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Worthington Trojans boys soccer players hoist the championship trophy in celebration of their Section 2A win over Mankato East Thursday night in New Prague. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)2 / 4
Worthington's Edwin Hernandez (11) passes to Victor Alvarez (22) Thursday in the Section 2A boys soccer championship game. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)3 / 4
Kevin Gutierrez (8) of Worthington High School passes around Mankato East's Colin Knutson (1) Thursday in New Prague. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)4 / 4

NEW PRAGUE -- The first half ended in a 0-0 tie, but the Worthington Trojans boys soccer team wasn’t worried.

Why would it be? The Trojans compiled a 17-0-1 record and the No. 1 seed on the way to Thursday’s Section 2A championship at New Prague High School, and they weren’t going to let a third-seeded team like Mankato East stand in the way of the school’s first Minnesota state soccer berth ever.

Worthington defeated Mankato East 3-1 on a turf field on a pretty October day of mild sunshine, and after the game ended the players celebrated like there was no tomorrow. WHS will play its first game of the Minnesota state Class A tournament next week against an as-yet unnamed opponent, to be determined through a seeding process.

Till then, however, there’s still time to celebrate. But only to a point.

“It’s what I wanted since I was a freshman. I am where I wanted to be, but I ‘aint done yet. I want a state title,” said junior defenseman Chris Cerda.

Veteran head coach Smitty Ektnitphong talked about many things after the final seconds ticked away Thursday night. But he, too, took a look ahead.

“I really like our chances as much as anybody else,” he declared.

The first half of Thursday’s Mankato East/Worthington showdown was fairly evenly played. Worthington had an excellent chance to score with about three and a half minutes remaining when Edwin Hernandez made a nice pass to Victor Alvarez, who narrowly missed a sharp poke on the left side of the East net. Then East returned the favor as Suleiman Haji, with a free kick from about 35 yards out, just missed to the left with about a minute and a half remaining.

In the first half, East might have had a slight advantage.

“They won the coin toss and they elected to play with the wind at their back,” said Ektnitphong. “That’s really the only thing that we lost. We lost the coin toss.”

In the second half, with the wind in Worthington’s favor, senior Kevin Gutierrez broke the scoreless tie on a 30-yard free kick with 33:22 to go. Situated directly in front of the Cougars’ goal, Gutierrez lofted the ball above the head of the goalkeeper, who got a hand on it. But it trickled off and across the scoring line.

At the 22:45, Worthington junior forward Jon Keodouangsy -- Minnesota Class A’s most prolific scorer this season -- gained possession of a free ball and put himself in a position one-on-one against the East goalkeeper. Keodouangsy’s deft footwork caused his defender to fall down to the turf, so he flicked the ball into an open net about seven yards in front.

Up 2-0, the Trojans could feel a state tournament berth by now, but East threw a little scare into the fans with a free kick goal by Colin Knutson, who set up only 10 yards away from WHS goalkeeper Sander Diaz. Diaz dove, but he had too much goal to protect, and the margin was trimmed to 2-1 at 8:06.

Worthington’s third goal was scored on a breakaway from Alvarez after a Mankato East free kick was rejected decisively. Alvarez scooped up the ball near midfield and scored on a long, easy kick into an empty Cougars net with just 18 seconds remaining.

The celebration had begun.

For us and the school

“It’s been in our system for a long time. We had some unfinished business. I guess our unfinished business is over, we’re going to state,” said Keodouangsy after the trophy was presented to the team.

A year ago, Worthington lost in overtime to Mankato West in the section finals. This year, their objective all season was to be the best, and they proved it -- at least in this section of the state.

“We have a lot that we want to accomplish -- to make it back to the section final and make it to the state tournament,” said Ektnitphong. “It seems easy now that we made it, but we have to go through the regular season, and we have to go through the playoffs as the No. 1 seed.”

If the Trojans ever felt apprehensive about having a target on their backs in 2017, they never showed it.

“It feels very good,” said Alvarez. “Last year we lost the final, and we needed to win this game because it was important to us and the school.”

“It feels amazing just to win the section finals and to be the first Worthington team to win the section finals,” testified Keodouangsy.

“We started off slow. But we knew there were 40 minutes in the second half,” said Cerda. “We knew that when we take our lead, do not lose our focus.”

Ektnitphong, who has coached Worthington soccer since 2003, taught his players to stay together, to always be mentally sharp, and to perform in a way that will always make themselves and their community proud. Though the focus has always been to win every game, he drilled his players that it’s more important to play hard than to worry about the “W’s.” That way, whether they gain the win or not, they will know that they did the best they could.

His players followed the plan for 18 “W’s” this year.

“He’s been a good father figure. He’s always been there for us, and in good or bad times he’s always there for us,” said Keodouangsy. “The thing he said to us that impacted us is we’re not just a team, we’re a family.”

“He took me and my teammates and made us a family. We worked together,” said Alvarez.

Worthington 0 3 -- 3

Mankato East 0 1 -- 1

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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