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Second-half explosion lifts Wildcats to district title

By Eli Hoff
Columbia Daily Tribune
Blue Spring's Matthew Martinez (11) celebrates with Caden Hoehns after receiving the Class 4 District 9 championship trophy following their 4-1 over host Columbia Hickman Wednesday night.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – It took two long-range finishes, a header and a cleaned-up rebound. A speedy midfield and sound centerback pairing helped. And by the end of the 80 minutes, it was party time for Blue Springs.

With a strong second half the Wildcats largely coasted to their Class 4 District 9 title win over host Columbia Hickman Tuesday night with a 4-1 performance.

Blue Springs and Hickman entered halftime tied after an unproductive first 40 minutes that didn’t favor either side. 

“We came out flat in the first half,” Wildcats coach Michael Palermo said. “I didn’t think we were very good.”

But right out of the break, the tables turned.

Senior midfielder Matthew Martinez beat his man off the dribble at the corner of the Hickman box. He shifted the ball to his left foot and, cutting inside, let it fly. Martinez’s curling opener provided quite the start to scoring.

Blue Spring's Matthew Martinez (11) tracks down a loose ball in the Class 4 District 9 championship against Columbia Hickman. Martinez scored one goal to help the Wildcats to a 4-1 win and their first soccer district title since 2007.

Not long after, the Kewpies drew a foul in the box and converted the ensuing penalty to equalize. The score was tied for only 10 minutes before Blue Springs got its breakthrough.

Freshman forward Mason Willier’s off-balance shot from the top of the box went in the top half of the goal.

When Hickman’s goalkeeper came too far off his line, sophomore midfielder Landon Bernhardy poked a header past him.

And when a rebound after a save fell to his feet, senior forward Dom Zubeck sealed the victory.

In the second half, the Wildcats successfully broke down the Kewpies’ defensive block. Blue Springs’ speedy midfielders routinely blew past their counterparts.

Blue Spring's Landon Bernhardy (4) get his foot on the ball to clear it from the defensive zone in the Class 4 District 9 championship against Columbia Hickman Wednesday night. Bernhardy later scored a goal to help the Wildcats to a 4-1 victory.

It may have been a midseason formation switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2, though, that paid the biggest dividends. The Wildcats’ strikers worked well off together, creating open space for each other and slipping between channels – a headache for the Kewpies.

“The two forwards, now after a couple weeks of doing it, are starting to work off each other well,” Palermo said.

And Martinez was a force, both off the ball as a high-presser and boosting his teammates.

“Matthew does all the hard work,” Palermo said. “He comes back and takes the big guys on and holds players off. The other guys use their speed and quickness, so it was a team effort.”

The district title wasn’t an easy one for the Wildcats to claim: Two drives to Columbia in three days can be a headache.

“Things are kind of stacked against you when you have to do that a lot of times and play two really good teams,” Palermo said.

But it was all worth it – which is to be expected of a program’s first title since 2007. And for a group of seniors who went winless their freshman season, it’s even better.

Blue Springs will face Jefferson City (23-2) with a spot in the state quarterfinals on the line on Saturday.

For now, it’s time to take pictures with the trophy.

“I’m just super excited for the boys,” Palermo said.