What started as a surprise by the United Township boys' soccer team needs one more victory for a the final chapter to happily end.|
All that awaits is Moline.
"Our biggest rival," UT coach Phil Weaver said.
Already guaranteed a share of their first Western Big 6 Conference title in 11 years, the Panthers are a win or tie away from an outright crown when they meet Moline on Tuesday at the Moline Soccer Bowl. Moline, the reigning league champ, is the Panthers' last hurdle to perfection, an obstacle that presents challenges and adds more intrigue to a long-standing rivalry.
"On paper, it looks like it could be a really, really exciting game for everybody," Weaver said. "Hopefully, the players will represent each school well. It's not often you get both teams in this position, both in the conference and regular-season play."
Both teams have garnered No. 1 seeds in their respective regionals when postseason starts next week. All that's left in the regular season is this contest, one that will determine if the Big 6 has a single champion or shared title.
No matter what happens Tuesday, the Panthers, who opened Big 6 play with a win over Quincy for the first time in a decade, have a share of their fifth league title in 28 years. A loss means UT shares the Big 6 crown with Moline and Quincy as all three would be 4-1 in league play.
The Big 6 never has finished in a three-way tie.
"All I know is we have our hands full," Moline coach Rick Sanchez said. "I give them a lot of respect. I know we're going to have to play our best soccer to beat them. I know we're going to have to cut down on mistakes."
Looking at the two, UT enters with confidence. Since an 8-1 loss to Peoria Notre Dame on Sept. 20, the Panthers have gone unbeaten in their next seven matches to construct a 17-2-3 record. No UT team has won that many regular-season matches since its 1999 Class AA state championship squad.
What has helped the Panthers to their second eight-match unbeaten streak is a plus-19 goal differential the last two weeks.
"They've shown they've got the strength and character after what was a demoralizing loss to Peoria Notre Dame," Weaver said. "The fact we had an outstanding start and seeing how the team has grown over the last few weeks, it's not something that's beyond their grasp to win it outright. I know the buzz around the players is they would rather be crowned champion rather than split three ways."
Moline is taking a different approach.
"We're going to take it in stride," Sanchez said.
Based on the last week, that's probably a good thing. Since crafting a six-match winning streak, the Maroons have lost four out of their last five -- being outscored 10-1 in those losses -- to drop their overall mark 13-5-1.
The Maroons are seeking their first back-to-back Big 6 titles since 2002-03.
"They're extremely talented," Weaver said. "I'm expecting a few fireworks."
First kick is hours away.
"Two schools that know each other very well. The kids know each other very well," Sanchez said. "It should be a good game. That's what it's all about."
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