A wet and rainy day was the setting for an unforgettable match. 90 minutes of regulation and two 10 minute overtime periods were not enough to determine a winner in the Great Lakes District Championship on Saturday, October 3, when the Tigers faced the Region IV champions, Morton College Panthers from Cicero, Illinois. Instead, it would take a shoot out to see the Tigers prevail and punch their ticket to the NJCAA DI National Soccer Tournament.
Morton College earned their way to the Great Lakes Championship by sweeping through the Region IV tournament. Earning the one seed, and home field advantage throughout, they faced Kankakee Community College in the first round, defeating the Cavaliers 5-2. Their semifinal match featured a tough South Suburban College squad. Regulation and overtime would end deadlocked at one, however the Panthers were able to win the shootout four kicks to three. In the championship, Morton College faced off against 6th seeded Oakton Community College who they were able to decisively beat, 2-0.
Marshalltown enters the Great Lakes Championship as Region XI and Iowa Community College Athletic Conference Champions. The top seeded Tigers secured a first round bye as well as home field advantage throughout the tournament. Their opening match was against an always tough Iowa Western Community College. The Tigers outlasted the Reivers 2-0 in an intense physical battle. In the championship match, the NJCAA 2nd ranked Tigers hosted the NJCAA 8th ranked Lakers of Iowa Lakes Community College. Rafael Vacas was able to net his league leading 18th goal in overtime to secure the ICCAC Championship disc for the Tigers.
In the Great Lakes District Championship game, the Tigers did not take long to get into the Panthers' offensive third. They would test Panther goalie, Lukas Palma, early and often. Palma would answer the challenge, denying the Tiger attackers every time he was tested in the first half. The Tigers saw many scoring opportunities including a penalty kick, a one on one with the keeper, and set pieces, but the back of the net eluded them. Meanwhile, the Panther offense would only get off one shot on goal during the first half that ended locked at one.
A quick score by Baltazar Duran early in the second half, saw the Tigers playing catch up for the majority of the remainder of regulation, which is unfamiliar territory for the squad who has only trailed once this season. The 54th minute goal was Duran's team leading 18th of the year, and would encourage a packed in Panther defense for the remainder of the second half making it difficult for the Tigers to replicate the amount of scoring opportunities that they enjoyed in the first half.
The clock became another obstacle for the Tigers late in the game as it ticked down with desperation setting in. A flicker of hope unfolded in the 86th minute as a buildup down the right side, led to a cross finding a streaking Tiger attacker who buried a one timer and seemingly tied the game. However, the equalizer was for not due to the Tigers being called offsides.
Still the Tigers fought on. With the clock under a minute, the Tigers pulled their keeper, Joel Serrano into the front third in a last-ditch effort to convert off of a Panther foul. The move proved fruitful as a Hail Mary ball led to a series of headers by both teams. With the Panthers unable to clear, the ball careened off of Serrano's head to Aleix Viladot who found the back of the net off his head with just 19 seconds left in regulation forcing overtime.
Riding the emotional high, the Tigers would look to capitalize in the golden goal format of overtime. This opportunity would present itself in a cross from the left side of the field forcing the Panther goalkeeper out of position. Rafael Vacas would get a head on the ball, but the shot would sail and be denied by the crossbar. The remainder of the overtime periods would be characterized by a series of Tiger corner kicks which all would come up empty. On to penalty kicks.
"Coming into a penalty shootout with the game on the line, we needed people that were confident and ready to perform under an immense amount of pressure and our roster is full of players of nature. This team continues to demonstrate belief and resilience up until the last second of the game," Head Coach Rafael Martinez said about his mentally tough Tiger Squad.
The Tigers would win the coin flip and elect to kick first during the shootout. Freshman Matheus Pereira would put the Tigers in the driver seat as he found the back left corner to start the penalty kicks. As Kevin Cervantes approached the ball, a confident Joel Serrano correctly read the approach to deny the shot to his right. Putting the Tigers up 1-0. Sophomore Taiki Kinugawa, freshman Gustavo Leal, and sophomore Evandro Resende would all connect, as would the subsequent Panther kickers. The fifth and deciding kick would feature sophomore co-captain Rafael Ramos. Approaching the ball, Ramos knew that if he was successful, the Tigers would be on to Daytona, however a miss would result in an opportunity for the Panthers to tie. Ramos would show why he is a 1st team All-Region selection as he beat a diving Palma to the upper right quadrant.
"We are very happy for the guys and the program that we earned the victory and the trip to nationals to compete with the best in the country," Martinez said after the win. "I thought that we played the game that we wanted to play. I thought that we controlled most of the match both offensively and defensively. They took advantage of one of our few mistakes and made it difficult and dramatic at the end. Morton did a fantastic job and deserves a lot of credit for their performance today. They made it extremely difficult for us."
The victory secured the first trip to the national tournament for any team at MCC since the soccer team qualified for nationals in 2012. The tournament is slated for November 12-17 in Daytona Beach, Florida. The national tournament format features four, three team pools. The winner of each pool advances to the final four with an opportunity to compete for the NJCAA National Championship. The Tigers will await their seeding and pool placement until it's announcement on Monday.