Nearly going all season without allowing a goal in Western Big 6 Conference play, the Geneseo soccer team’s defense came through again to tie Rock Island Wednesday night to earn the Maple Leafs their first Big 6 title.
The Maple Leafs finished with a 1-1 overtime draw on the road against the defending Big 6 champions, securing the outright league title in a pandemic-altered spring season in their second year in the conference.
Coach Harvey Morton said both teams played hard throughout the 100-minute battle at a chilly Almquist Field as Geneseo finished the season 9-1-1 and 6-0-1 in the Big 6.
Rocky (5-3-1, 4-1-1), which plays at Quincy to finish the year, put 11 shots on goal as the Maple Leafs defense and keeper Gage Tafoya kept things knotted up.
“They did put the pressure on us, they’re very quick,” Morton said. “We changed a little bit of our style and (the defense) stepping up again was huge.”
Rock Island senior Jordan Rice, who has missed much of this year with an injury, was the first player to score on the Leafs in conference this season. His header goal in the 12th minute gave the Rocks a 1-0 lead.
Geneseo’s Hunter Clark-Holke’s used a penalty kick goal in the 37th minute to tie the game. Rock Island senior keeper Ben Samuelson made a number of impressive saves to keep things tied as Geneseo had six shots on goal.
Each team had a number of good looks at close range in the goal, with a number of shots going high over the goal.
Rock Island kept a majority of the pressure on the Geneseo defense in the tie, but the Leafs' reloaded unit did their best to neutralize the attack.
A year after graduating its back line, Morton gave credit to his senior defenders — Mason Smith, Mitch Wirth, and twin brothers Carson and Charlie Rice.
“We didn’t have a postseason this year, but this was the best we could do,” Charlie Rice said. “It was a good team win today.”
The four have plenty of past experience playing JV together and mixing in varsity playing time. This was their year to step up.
“We finally got our shot and did what we needed to do,” Charlie said.
Carson said the defense and overall team ability has been key to Geneseo winning its first Big 6 title. Geneseo outscored opponents 22-1 this season in conference play.
“Through the midfield and forwards, we all played really well together and moved the ball really well,” Carson Rice said. “Rock Island is really fast, probably a lot faster than some of us are, but we communicated well and talked well, and we were in the right spot at the right time and we were able to keep them out of the goal.”
Wirth said having a new back line step up was a challenge, but they played as a team and continued to get stronger.
“I think keeping our composure, not letting them get in our heads, and being able to play physical but not foul,” Wirth said of the keys to containing Rocky.
Smith, who joined the defensive side this past season, said he fit right in.
“It feels amazing,” Smith said of Geneseo earning its first Big 6 title. “Especially our senior year, to end this way and not losing, even though the postseason would have been nice, this is an amazing way to end.”
Eight of Geneseo’s 11 starters were seniors.
“Being able to step in and win it this year,” said Morton, “with this group of seniors, it’s fantastic.”