NILES - With the final whistle, the Red Dragons mobbed each other at midfield.
The Niles girls soccer team outlasted Hubbard at home in the first round of this Division II sectional semifinal Monday night, 3-2, moving onto the next round.
"We just went nuts," senior captain Alexis Dabney said. "It's the best feeling in the world. You should have seen us off the field - we're all excited."
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Niles’ Rachel Miketa, right, uses her head to advance the ball as Hubbard’s Rachel Rubinic defends Monday in Niles. Hubbard’s Kayla Zoccole, background, follows the action.
The Red Dragons (10-5-2) could celebrate thanks to two nearly identical goals in the 60th and 71st minute that gave Niles the lead that the team would not relinquish.
With the score tied at 1-1, junior midfielder Gabby Chaffin put Niles ahead, getting the ball from just outside the box and hitting a floater toward net. The shot left Hubbard (8-7-2) goalkeeper Melinda Gigax unsure of its destination, and the ball just dipped under the crossbar for the goal.
Then, 11 minutes later, it was sophomore forward Delainey Cowell's turn - this time from just inside the 18-yard box. Once again, Gigax could only look on hopelessly as the ball floated just under the bar.
The two goals also were Niles' only shots of the second half.
"There were both very good shots," Niles coach Jennifer Burin said. "That's what you got to do on a good goalkeeper like that. Both girls looked and took the shot and made it. You have to shoot with confidence, and they did."
Despite allowing the two goals, Hubbard controlled a majority of the possession in the second half but couldn't get past Niles goalkeeper Paige Freele. The Eagles put five shots on goal, four of which Freele blocked.
Hubbard finally managed to make the possession count in the 79th minute, when a Gigax free kick bounced off Freele and right to Zoccole. The senior just had to tap in the ball from close range, but it was too late to mount a comeback.
"I'm proud of my girls," Hubbard coach Scott MacMillan said. "They played their butts off. I felt they dominated the second half. They got a little unlucky - nothing you can do."
The Hubbard back line's tactics changed from the first half to the second half, which allowed the Red Dragons forwards more freedom.
The Eagles used an offside trap in the first half, playing a high line in an attempt to force the Niles forwards to stray offside. It worked, with the Red Dragons committing six offside infractions and burning Hubbard once for a goal.
But in the second half, speed and fatigue became a factor, and the Eagles changed their tactics. Niles committed zero offside infractions in the half, despite the Hubbard backline playing high up the field.
"In the second half, I moved my sweeper up to center (midfield) and moved my center (midfielder) to the back because of speed and fatigue," MacMillan said. "We didn't trap, but we pushed up because we were able to."
Up next, Niles plays Lakeview in the Division sectional final Thursday. The teams tied their previous encounter 1-1 on Sept. 8, and that's give the Red Dragons confidence going into the match.
"I have no doubts at all," Dabney said. "I think that it's going to be a great game, but I think that we're going to pull it out."