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Panthers edge St. Pius X to claim district title

By The Examiner staff

A little more than three weeks ago, the Oak Grove boys soccer team was sitting there with a 3-10 record.

The Panthers were coming off a second straight loss, a 3-0 setback against Harrisonville.

Five straight wins later and Oak Grove is just one win away from reaching the Class 2 state final four.

Gael Perez continued another strong season by scoring the only goal as the Panthers edged St. Pius X 1-0 Thursday in the Class 2 District 7 championship game.

“We started off the season 1-7. … I was very concerned with how we were playing, but I knew we had it in us,” Oak Grove coach Zach Herzig said. “I also knew that we were playing high quality competition. Essentially that prepared us for the postseason.

“On top of that, I made a few changes and preached to the boys that playing tough competition early will benefit us in the long run. They bought in and really understood their role on the team. It all came together at the right time. Winning three in a row before districts gave us the momentum we needed to take the title.”

The victory vaults Oak Grove into next week’s state quarterfinal against District 8 champion St. Joseph Bishop LeBlond (11-2). The game, originally scheduled for Tuesday, will be played at 6 p.m. Monday at Bishop LeBlond. The winner of that advances to the state final four against St. Mary’s of St. Louis or Orchard Farm.

“This has to be one of my proudest moments as a coach,” Herzig said. “It means even more because I started coaching at Oak Grove when these boys were freshmen. So they are my original class.”

Perez gave the Panthers the lead early, scoring on an assist from Keegan Huff in the sixth minute.

Goalkeeper Hagan Dyer was a big reason the Panthers advanced to the state playoffs, making 13 saves to stonewall St. Pius, which finished 6-11 after a pair of upsets in its first two district games.

“Hagan played one of his best games. He shines in the spotlight – 13 saves and two amazing stops,” Herzig said. “Gael scored early. I think they were still getting into the game and we scored. Gael has scored five goals in two (district) games and is playing like an MVP.”

With Perez scoring so early, the Panthers had to withstand the Warriors, who out-shot them 16-13 and had a 6-3 advantage on corner kicks.

“I am not going to lie ... I was on edge the whole second half,” Herzig said. “St. Pius is an excellent team with a very organized style of play. I thought they were going to score. Luckily we prevailed. I told our boys at half we can bend but we won't break.”

Now the Panthers turn their focus on Bishop LeBlond.

“Looking into LeBlond, I have noticed that it will be a very close game,” Herzig said. “Earlier in the year Leblond beat Pius 2-0. They also played St. Michael, who we lost to 3-0. LeBlond lost to them 3-1. It seems to be an even matchup.”