Free kick after free kick Thursday night, Elkhorn kept the ball on the ground, hoping to carve out a goal from one of its typical set-piece plays.
Time after time, junior Sean Ahler crashed the far post—just in case—only to be left mostly mostly far away from the action.
Until the 73rd minute.
There, senior Adam Reigle served in a free kick from 35 yards out. Ahler got on the end of it, found a way to pop the ball over Waunakee keeper Sullivan Schwitters and tapped in his fourth goal of the season.
“You’ve just got to keep working hard,” Ahler said. “Every time, I go to the back post. We needed a goal, so I did whatever it took.”
Ahler’s tally was the only one in a match played primarily in the midfield, and it led the second-seeded Elks to a 1-0 victory over the third-seeded Warriors.
Elkhorn is now one victory away from returning to the WIAA Division 2 state tournament for the second time in three years, and it will play top-seeded Oregon on Saturday.
“I had a lot of confidence in this group to make it this far,” Reigle said. “We’re a great group together. We function the best out of almost every team I’ve seen—on or off the ball, inside the field, outside the field, everything.”
Prime scoring chances were few and far between.
Elkhorn had built some momentum, however, with less than 30 minutes left, including in the 63rd and 65th minutes off buildups from free kicks.
They played the ball on the ground both times, and once wound up with a header that sailed wide and the other time were stopped by Schwitters.
Nothing came easy, as Waunakee mostly shut the door on the Elks’ typical plays on set pieces.
“We try to play them on the ground, but they obviously saw some video and took that away from us,” Elkhorn coach BZ Kayser said. “We like to try to run patterns off Luke Umnus, but they were taking those away, so I just told them we had to start putting them in the air a little bit.
“That’s a really good team. This one could have gone either way.”
Reigle said he treated the critical free kick like a corner kick.
“Just play it through and hope for the backside run,” Reigle said. “And just hope for the best.”
And if anyone was going to get on the end of one of those free kicks, it was likely to be Ahler.
“’Backside Sean,’ since the other day at practice, that’s what we’ve been calling him,” Reigle said.
Vince Umnus’ chance to double the Elks’ lead in the 80th minute clanged off the right post.
Waunakee had a decent look to equalize in the 88th, but its shot sailed just left of the post at the other end.
So Elkhorn will get another chance to see Oregon in a sectional final. It’ll be the fourth time the two teams have met with a state berth on the line since 2013.
In 2016, the Elks won in a shootout following a scoreless draw in regulation and went on to be the D2 state runners-up. In 2013, Oregon won 1-0 in overtime on the way to a state title, and the Panthers also beat Elkhorn 4-0 in a 2014 sectional final.
“It’s always got to be Oregon,” Kayser said. “We’ll have our hands full. They’re solid and have some crazy forwards.
“We’ve beat them once and they’ve beaten us twice. Hopefully we can even the score, but it’ll be tough, because they’re really good.”
Saturday’s match is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Elkhorn.
ELKHORN 1, WAUNAKEE 0
Waunakee 0 0—0
Elkhorn 0 1—1
E—Sean Ahler (Adam Reigle), 72:15.
Saves—Sullivan Schwitters (W) 5, Alex Hergott (E) 2. Shots—Waunakee 4, Elkhorn 12. Shots on goal—Waunakee 2, Elkhorn 6. Fouls—Waunakee 14, Elkhorn 14. Corner kicks—Waunakee 3, Elkhorn 5. Offsides—Elkhorn 4.