MOUNT ZION — For the last four years, the rest of the Apollo Conference has been playing catch-up with the Mattoon soccer team. It was no different this season as Mattoon was once again playing with a target on its back as the favorites to win the Apollo.
The Green Wave faced plenty of tests. Mahomet-Seymour played Mattoon to two 3-3 ties this season and Mount Zion just lost to Mattoon 2-1 earlier in the season. But in the other seven Apollo matches, Mattoon has won every match by at least fours goals and even though the Green Wave did play to two ties, no one in the Apollo has been able to knock them off.
That gave Mattoon an 8-0-2 Apollo record (26 points) going into Saturday's match against Mount Zion, which helped Mattoon by beating Mahomet-Seymour 1-0 on Thursday. That eliminated the Bulldogs but the Braves were only one point (8-1-1) behind Mattoon with two matches left in the Apollo slate. So if Mattoon beat Mount Zion on Saturday, the Green Wave would win its fifth straight Apollo title.
Mattoon jumped out to an early lead with a goal in the seventh minute. By halftime, the Green Wave had a commanding 3-0 lead and Mattoon went on to claim its fifth straight conference championship with a 4-1 win over Mount Zion on Saturday.
Mattoon coach Ryan Ghere says each Apollo title gets harder than the year before.
"You have to give these guys credit because I told them all year that they have a target on their back. Everybody wants to beat us and nobody wants Mattoon to win it again," Ghere said. "Every team gives us their best game and this team has responded every game. We haven't lost a game in the conference yet. Everything kind of fell in the place at the end. It was good.
"Gotta give the kids credit because our heads were down after (the Mahomet-Seymour game) Tuesday. We thought we should've had a win. The kids battled back and controlled their own destiny and they took care of it."
Ghere said the team stepped up in what felt like a must-win game on Saturday.
"These seniors have played a lot of games under pressure the last four years and just another big game and they handled themselves well," Ghere said. "The kids have worked hard over the season and the good thing was to do it with a game to play and not have it rest on the rivalry game with Charleston on Thursday. We wanted to get it clinched today and take care of business. We needed a win and got one. The kids played well."
Mount Zion coach Jonathan Moore said he didn't want Mattoon to get out to the early lead but that's exactly what the Green Wave did.
"Mattoon played well. Our hats are off to them winning the conference today. They outplayed us, plain and simple," Moore said. "They got in early goals and we knew coming in we couldn't give up an early goal. We put ourselves behind and against this team, it's hard to come back against them."
Ghere said getting the first goal early took a good amount of pressure off the team.
"Last year here we didn't do that. The longer you wait, the harder it is to get that goal," Ghere said. "I thought we set the tone early. We were aggressive, moved the ball well on the turf. Defensively we played well enough. We weren't perfect in the back but we hustled and covered each other and took care of what we need to take care of."
Mattoon's first goal of the game came on a set piece. Shane Ghere sent in a corner kick and Alex Lensink headed it in. In the 22nd minute, Ghere passed up to Jacob Mathias and he beat the keeper for a goal. Then on another corner kick four minutes later, Jake Ghere headed in the corner kick from Shane Ghere for a 3-0 lead.
In the second half, Mount Zion missed a couple of chances to clear the ball. Mathias got a handled on it and passed about two yards back and to his right to Jake Ghere and he fired it in for the goal for a 4-0 advantage.
"Set pieces again. Two of them corners and one a throw in that was rebounded around," Ryan Ghere said. "We are taking advantage of set pieces and we are tough with Jake's long throws and Shane sending in corners. We are putting teams on their heels and we finished. Alex Lensink came up to head one in."
Mount Zion did get a goal with 14 minutes left in the game on an indirect kick. Jonathan Oliger got the short pass and fired off a shot over the wall and into the net for the Braves lone goal of the match.
The Braves now have to bounce back and face Charleston on Tuesday. Then the Braves jump into Class 2A region play against Urbana.
"That's what I just told the boys. We are disappointed and heartbroken that the conference went the other way but the season isn't over," Moore said. "What we really play for are regional plaques."