The Tigers ultimately came up short in sectionals, losing to Western in the semifinal last Wednesday.
The loss came amid a rollercoaster of emotions following the loss of Senior Captain Jackson Hale to a torn ACL on Sept. 28. His injury left a hole for Northwestern to fill, but Northwestern Head Coach Aaron Longgood said his confidence in the team going forward was unwavering.
As good as Hale was, the coach said the team definitely was not a one-man show.
“My confidence is extremely high. Really the only thing I’m worried about is getting all these guys to play together. You know, they each have that role on the team where they can get those goals, get that assist. But the issue is now, this close to the tournament, are we going to be able to piece it all together without Jackson?” Longgood said.
In addition to missing part of this season, Hale also missed most of last season suffering another torn ACL in his other leg.
At the time, Hale was ranked fourth in the nation in points at 64, with a whopping 22 goals and 20 assists in just 14 games. He finished the season with those stats.
Longgood praised Hale in his unselfishness and effectiveness in spreading the ball around.
“Last year I came about halfway through the season, and I didn't really know him. He was injured. He was out for the year. All I heard was, ‘Oh, this guy is so good,' whatever,” Longgood said. “Just seeing it with my own eyes, seeing him play, it’s unbelievable. I’ve played with three players in high school that were divisional players on all-state teams, and he’s by far one of the best high school players I’ve ever seen.”
Here is a timeline of how the season went after Hale went down:
Sept. 28 – Hale went down after going for a header against Western. Northwestern drew 1-1.
Oct. 1 – Northwestern lost 4-0 to Logansport after struggling to string together offense.
Oct. 5 – SECTIONALS FIRST ROUND: Northwestern rolled Eastern 8-0 in a bounce-back game
Longgood said the key difference in finding life in the sectionals versus Eastern came down to one thing.
“Confidence. We were missing that last week in every single player,” he said. “It’s so easy to get your mental into a downward spiral after you watch Jackson go down. Then we draw a team we beat 5-0 and get blown out 4-0 by Logansport, and all the sudden you’re questioning your entire season as a player. We worked extremely hard all week on just getting these guys to believe in themselves.”
He credited Eastern’s keeper Kyle McCreary in the contest for having the best performance by a goalie he had ever seen in a high school game. Yes, Northwestern won 8-0. Northwestern had 42 shots in that game, and McCreary saved 34 of them.
He also credited his own team’s offensive performance. Wes Miller recorded three goals and four assists. Zam Miller bagged a hat trick, and Bowser got a brace in the game.
“The difference in confidence between last week and this week is on a different planet, and now that we’ve found it we can go as far as this team wants to,” Longgood said.
All eyes were on Oct. 7, semifinals time in a rivalry game against Western for a spot in the championship game.
Oct. 7 – SECTIONALS SEMIFINAL - Northwestern dropped 2-1 to Western; the season was over.
In a chippy rivalry game, Western did just enough to upset the Tigers and advance to the championship. Western’s Brindan Fuller racked up six saves, the biggest stopping Wes Miller’s penalty kick that would have tied the game.
Miller scored earlier in the game to tie the match at 1-1, but Northwestern couldn’t put together a score afterward.
Northwestern finished its season 12-4-1. Jackson Hale reflected on what made the season, and this particular group, so close.
“We were so special because of our ability to outwork every team we played against. And one of the biggest reasons we were successful this season was our chemistry. Our team bonded so well, and we could easily rely on each other to make the right choices in touch situations,” Hale said.
In Longgood’s first season as head coach, he got Hale and the rest of the Tigers to buy in. As a 2015 Northwestern grad, he understood what it meant to play Northwestern soccer. Hale had high praise for his coach in return.
“Our coach Aaron Longgood is one of the best coaches if not the best coach I’ve ever had. He really pushes us to our full potential. He made us better than I thought we could ever be. And not only that, he is also a great friend. I consider him a brother,” Hale said. “I believe if he continues to coach Northwestern, I can see many championships coming our way because what he does is amazing.”
Hale said he’s had talks with Xavier, IUPUI, North Carolina, and some others, but those were his top three collegiate choices.
Coming up short was not the way Longgood wanted his first season to end, but he couldn’t deny how good of a season his team had. He said he couldn’t have asked for a better team in his first year.
“I was blessed with a group of guys I had who came up, who worked hard, and we got 12 wins on the year. That’s huge, definitely disappointing to go out how we did. We had tons and tons of chances that first half. It sucks. But you just have to move on, get kicked in the teeth sometimes and come out stronger next season,” Longwood said.