WIAA state boys soccer photo: McFarland's Brett Connor goes down

McFarland's Brett Connor, left, shouts out as he is toppled by Milwaukee Pius XI's Ivan Cuellar in Saturday's WIAA Division 3 state championship game at Uihlein Soccer Park in Milwaukee. Pius took a 3-1 victory.

MILWAUKEE — The McFarland boys soccer team was fully prepared for the fast-strike offense of Milwaukee Pius XI on Saturday.

But, much to the top-seeded Spartans’ dismay, it was the second-seeded Popes’ defense that had the last word in a 3-1 victory in the WIAA Division 3 state championship game at Uihlein Soccer Park.

It was a frustrating end to a great season for coach Brett Ogorzalek and the Spartans (19-5-0), making the second state tournament visit in program history.

“We just made a couple of mistakes on defense, and that was enough,” Ogorzalek said. “We had a nice goal early, then they had a nice goal to tie it up and then it became anybody’s game.”

While the Spartans focused on All-State forward Ivan Cuellar and the rest of the Popes’ front-line offense, the Pius defense took center stage after an early slip.

“We just rode the defense down the stretch,” said Pius coach Hansi Herzog, whose team finished 22-3-2. “As everyone knows, offense wins games but defense wins championships. Our team has a lot of character.”

And it showed: The Popes erased an early 1-0 McFarland lead with three consecutive goals, including two impressive plays in the second half, to take control.

The young Spartans did not go down without a fight, spending most of the final 20 minutes in the Pius end — though they could not find the back of the net.

Pius goalkeeper Nick Smerz made six big saves, including a split-second dive to his left to stop a point-blank shot that would have given the Spartans a 2-1 lead early in the second half.

He also got a lot of help from his back-line defenders, who cleared one ball after another from the front of the goal.

“This was very tough,” said Spartans co-captain Caleb Blair, who had the team’s only goal. “Games like these can go any which way. But give them (the Popes) credit. They earned it.”

Early on, it looked like McFarland was gearing up for a big day. At the 3:53 mark, Blair snapped up teammate Brett Connor’s corner kick and smashed it home from the top of the box for a 1-0 lead.

That lead held up until Pius’ high-octane offense finally got unwound at 27:49, when Cuellar dumped a short free kick into the box and teammate Mason Waas bounced it in with his head for the equalizer.

The Popes took the lead for good at the 59:16 mark, when Cuellar made a strong serve down the right side to teammate Chris Quinto, who buried a hard shot to the left corner of the net.

McFarland had a chance to tie it a short time later, but a free kick header went over the net.

Rey Sprewer put in the clincher on an assist from Quinto for Pius at the 71:39 mark.

McFarland outshot Pius 17-16 as freshman keeper Matt Schutt made four saves for McFarland.

In a classy move, after the Spartans received their runner-up awards, captains Blair and Ethan Larsen got everyone up to applaud as Pius received its championship honors. It was just another lesson the team’s only two senior starters taught the young Rock Valley Conference champions.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Larsen said. “We’ll remember it forever, and it’s a great feeling knowing the program is in such good hands. We have a lot of faith in these younger guys.”

Ogorzalek agreed.

“This has been a blast,” he said. “A wild ride. It’s been a huge honor to coach these guys and get to the title game. A ton of fun!”

Milwaukee Pius XI 1 2 — 3

McFarland 1 0 — 1

First half — Mc: Blair (Connor), 3:53. MP: Waas (Cuellar), 27:49

Second half — MP: Quinto (Cuellar), 59:16; Sprewer (Quinto), 71:39.

Shots — MP 16 (Quinto 4, Sprewer 4, Cuellar 2, Gonzalez 2, Fendt 2, Waas 1, Singleton 1); Mc 17 (E. Nichols 9, Z. Nichols 2, Werwinski 1, Connor 1, Seils 1, Blair 1, Sampson 1, Torres 1). Shots on goal — MP 7 (Gonzalez 2, Waas 1, Cuellar 1, Quinto 1, Sprewer 1, Fendt 1); Mc 7 (E. Nichols 5, Blair 1, Z. Nichols 1). Saves — MP 6 (Smerz); Mc 4 (Schutt). Corner kicks — MP 12; Mc 11. Offside — MP 0; Mc 3. Yellow cards — MP 2 (Cuellar, Gonzalez). Records — Mc 18-5; MP 21-3-2.