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Strake Jesuit wasn’t supposed to survive this showdown.
The unranked Crusaders, who finished third in their district, were taking on North Shore, ranked No. 4 in the state, in what might as well have been the Mustangs’ backyard, only 11 miles from campus.
They also played a man down most of the second half Friday after losing goalkeeper Andrew Karcher to a red card.
But these Crusaders were determined to defy the odds – and all belief.
North Shore’s Luis Gutierrez knotted it in the 77th minute, but Strake Jesuit found a miraculous answer two minutes later, with Gabriel Dominguez chesting in the game-winner for a 2-1 win at Abshier Stadium.
"I envisioned this game going a lot of different ways, but never like that," Strake coach Bill McDonald said.
"Down a man, our guys put together an incredible effort, and then after giving up that goal, a lot of teams are going to fold and go away, and we didn’t. We stepped up and found a way to get the winning goal."
Senior forward Zach Till gave Strake a 1-0 lead in the fourth minute, outsprinting two North Shore defenders on a fastbreak.
That advantage held until the wild finish, despite Strake playing shorthanded.
Karcher stepped over his line to snare a through ball in the 50th minute, and the referee ruled he deliberately stopped a scoring chance, earning him a red card and a one-game suspension Saturday.
Geoffrey Abbott went the rest of the way in goal for the Crusaders.
He was doing fine, too, until three minutes left, when he came out of his goal on a long kick by the Mustangs and got caught, with Luis Gutierrez just able to toe the ball past him for the equalizer.
"Them having an extra man for 30 minutes, and such a talented, skillful team, I knew it was going to be tough to hold them off the board," McDonald said. "So, after seeing that goal go in, I’m just glad my guys’ spirit didn’t go all out of them and they were able to find that game-winner."
They found it on a long throw-in.
The ball landed in the box, a Strake player deflected it back to Dominguez, and he stuck out his chest – and won the game.
"It wasn’t with the hands, so it’s legal," McDonald quipped.
"It was our typical long throw-in, and we got a good flick on the first ball, and we’re taught to make sure other players are availing themselves for that second ball, and we had a guy in position."
The victory secured their first regional final in seven years.
Strake Jesuit (17-5-4) will face Elsik (21-0-2), a 1-0 winner over Tompkins in overtime, for the Region III-6A championship at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Abshier. Elsik is ranked No. 1 by TopDrawerSoccer.
North Shore, the 21-5A champ, ended its season 24-2-3.
"We’ve come a long way," McDonald said.
"We’ve matured into a team that defends extremely well and has a lot of different weapons to score, and so I like our chances, but Elsik’s going to be a very difficult team."
Jason McDaniel is a freelance writer.