For the first 50 minutes or so, the Muskego boys soccer team kept playing catch-up with host Oak Creek in the two teams' WIAA sectional semifinal on Oct. 27, but then their conditioning carried them through as they outscored the Knights, 3-0, in the final 40 minutes to earn a 5-3 victory.
With the win, Muskego advanced to the sectional final at Kenosha Bradford High School where it fell just short of upsetting top-ranked and nationally-ranked Marquette on Oct. 29, as the Hilltoppers downed the Warriors, 3-2, to advance to the WIAA Division 1 state tournament.
"It's been a credit to the team since the beginning of the season," said Muskego coach Aleks Vidakovich following the win over Oak Creek. "It (conditioning) is something they've taken upon themselves. It gives us depth so we just don't have to rely on 10 or 11 guys. We can call on all 24."
The win was the fifth in a row for the Warriors and improved them to 10-4-9 on the season, while the Southeast Conference champion Knights finished at 13-5-1. It was the second win of the season for the Warriors over the Knights. They had downed them in an early-season tournament contest.
Knight coach Martin Castro was disappointed his team could not hang onto three separate leads in the game. He said his team was short two players, but he did not want to make any excuses.
"We were down two guys including one of our main defensive midfielders, who got sick and couldn't go tonight, and then we got into their style of play," he said. "They're a physical team that'll move the ball up the field, and they will really work you. Their forwards are really good at making strong runs."
That was the case in the second half.
The score was tied at 2-2 going into the break after Oak Creek had taken leads of 1-0 and 2-1. The Knights took a 3-2 lead 5:30 into the second half on a shot from the right side from senior midfielder Naami Monirarani, but just a few minutes later at the 9:50 mark, Muskego senior forward Rade Novakovich slammed a shot to the far post to tie it up at 3-3.
From then on, momentum would be with the Warriors. They took the lead for good at the 16:26 mark of the second half, as senior defender Travis Bednarek punched in a deflected shot to give Muskego a 4-3 advantage.
Oak Creek had one good shot to tie it in the 22nd minute, but Muskego keeper senior Luke Horozewski made a a strong, diving save.
Six minutes later at 28:49, the Warriors got the all-important insurance goal from senior forward Martin Merenski on a powerful shot to the far left post on a nifty give and go.
"It was a very fast-paced game right from the start," Vidakovich said. "A lot of scoring and a lot of opportunities. Hopefully everybody found it exciting and entertaining to watch. The fans were really engaged with a real good turnout, too. Oak Creek is a great team. They won their conference outright and represented it very well."
Novakovich and Bednarek scored the first-half goals for Muskego.
Castro admitted his team just wasn't as deep as Muskego.
"Absolutely," he said. "It shows up when you can't hold leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2. They'll take advantage of it (depth). It really helped them in this game. I was impressed with them. It looks like they've turned a corner. I think they'll give Marquette a good game ... it was a good season. A conference championship. A win over (defending D2 state champion) Whitefish Bay. Those are all positives."
Junior forward Ty Stulo and senior defender Jakob Romboy had the early goals for Oak Creek.
To reach its first state tournament since 2013, Muskego needed to pull off the upset over two-time defending state champion Marquette, which is ranked No. 2 in the nation by USA Today.
Novakovich gave the Warriors a 1-0 lead, but Marquette equalized on a goal by Nicholas Cheung. The Warriors went up 2-1 in the second half on a goal by Novakovich, but Cheung scored two unanswered goals to send the Hilltoppers to the state semifinals.
"The sad thing is that only one team gets to end the season with a victory," Vidakovich said.
Muskego finished at 10-5-9 overall.