Offensive superstars often determine the outcome of important matches, but for Columbia College on Friday, the defense made the difference.
The Cougars upset Illinois-Springfield 2-1 at Owens Stadium to repeat as American Midwest Conference champions.
The winning goal came from an unlikely source. Jared Cross, a junior defender, scored his first goal of the season in the 53rd minute. His 35-yard shot from the right side went past goalkeeper Zach Hoette and found the upper left corner of the net.
“The angle I had on the goal was not the best for a cross, and as a defender my accuracy isn’t great,” Cross said. “But, as soon as I kicked it I knew it was going to go in.”
The Cougars, No. 22 in NAIA, stopped four Prairie Star shots in the final 37 minutes. Illinois-Springfield (10-4, 4-1) was No. 11 entering the game.
“This is as big as it gets in regular season play,” Cougars coach John Klein said. “We’ve never had a win as big as this as long as I’ve been here. It’s big on many levels.”
Winning the AMC title ensures the Cougars (12-3, 7-0) one of the top two spots in the six-team NAIA Region V Tournament. The Cougars will receive a bye in the first round and host a semifinal match at 7 p.m. on Nov. 13. The Region V winners advance to the national tournament.
The Cougars outshot the Prairie Stars 20-10. Goalkeeper Steve Williams let up a quick Prairie Star score in the second minute when he was unable to reach Jesse Elmore’s high shot.
“The first goal was really too early to get worried about,” Klein said. “We hadn’t seen what they had. It was a bit of a wake up call.”
Two minutes later, the Cougars responded. Stephen McMullen beat two Prairie Stars defenders in the box after receiving a Morten Crosby pass. McMullen shot a low ball into the left corner.
Despite taking 12 Cougars’ shots in the first half, the teams were tied at halftime.
“It came down to a ton of 50/50 balls,” UIS coach Joe Eck said. “Columbia is a very tough team, and they simply played better than we did.”
Cross said the Cougars’ determination won the game.
“The closer the game, the more intense. Overall, on the entire team I couldn’t point out one player on every single play that quit. It was a 100 percent team effort and that’s what it takes to win big games.”