When the two most dominant teams in Big Rivers Conference action took the field on Tuesday at Memorial, it promised to be a thrilling matchup.
The first 85 minutes of the match between Eau Claire Memorial and Hudson lived up to that. The final five took it to a whole new level.
Nick Thompson’s goal in the 88th minute gave Hudson a 1-0 win over Memorial in a hard-fought battle between two of the Big Rivers frontrunners. For the Old Abes, 87 minutes of solid, bend-but-don’t-break defense went unrewarded thanks to a gutsy finish by the Raiders.
“Really good game between two good teams. A chess match,” Memorial coach David Kite said. “Just a sad way to end for us. I felt we battled. I don’t think anyone deserved to win, I think a tie would have been the best result.
“After 87 minutes, probably a little lapse in concentration defensively. And we defended so resolutely the entire game, but had the slip-up in the end.”
Thompson had the ball fall to his feet at the edge of the Memorial penalty area, and managed to scuff a shot through a crowd of defenders and inches past the diving hands of Old Abes goalkeeper Tyler Hanson into the net.
“Soccer’s a cruel game. A tie might have been a fairer result tonight, but that’s the nature of the beast,” Kite said.
The hectic match saw momentum go back and forth, particularly at the end. Memorial (3-2-0, 2-1-0) had the opportunity to potentially take the lead in the 85th minute, but Mitchell Brenner’s free kick from 25 yards away flew just over the crossbar.
The Old Abes also had a chance to tie it on the last touch of the game. Lucas Zumwalt narrowly missed from inside the box with a header on the last play before the final whistle.
“It was a fairly even game,” Hudson coach Steve Sollom said. “We managed to get one today, but that’s soccer.”
Hudson (5-4-0, 4-0-0) came out in the first half as the stronger of the two teams, applying consistent pressure on the Memorial defense. Thompson nearly scored the opener on a header off a free kick by Kolton Prater in the 20th minute, but Hanson managed to tip it over the crossbar at the last moment.
Prater remained a menace for the Raiders, having a shot saved by a sliding Hanson in the 24th minute and thundering a free kick off the crossbar from the edge of the penalty area 15 minutes later.
The Raiders outshot Memorial 9-3 in the first half, as the Old Abes struggled to get shots on target. Most sailed harmlessly over or wide of the goal.
The second half saw Memorial move the ball forward with more inspiration, and the Old Abes managed to outshoot the Raiders 5-4 in the second half.
“Just a tough loss, but a good experience,” Kite said. “I felt we played 90 minutes tonight. I felt we came out and played from the first minute to the 90th.”
While they had fewer chances in the final 45 minutes, the Raiders made sure that theirs were dangerous. Prater had another look from a free kick about 25 yards away from goal in the 56th minute, and forced Hanson to make a diving save with a curling shot. Hudson’s Bennitt Sparling pounced on the rebound for another shot, but Hanson — who finished with five stops — made another lunging save.
The Raiders also had a goal disallowed in the 67th minute by an offsides call.
Going back to the 2008 season, only Hudson and Memorial have won the Big Rivers.
Memorial is the defending champion, and Hudson won it two years in a row prior to last season. Both teams had outscored opponents in the conference by a wide margin entering Tuesday’s game.
“It’s always a big game when you play Memorial, and I’m sure they feel the same way about playing Hudson,” Sollom said. “Generally, you think you’re playing for conference (titles) when you play them.
“It’s one game out of 20 or so that we’ll play, so you try not to get too up or down. But to get a goal and win here is a big deal.”