It's that time in the season where a loss sends you home until next fall, and the Carthage boys soccer team is well aware heading into Tuesday night's sectional contest against Willard.
"I'm nervous for every single game as soon as districts hit because all it takes is one bad game," Carthage head coach Jacob Osborne said Monday. "To already be a few games into it, it's a good feeling. Besides just the fact that one bad night from you can end it, with soccer, all it takes is one good night from your opponent or getting a goal in. We definitely don't take being this far for granted because it does take a lot to get here."
Carthage won the Class 2, District 12 title last week after defeating Webb City 8-1 and Neosho 2-1 at Carl Junction High School. Willard, meanwhile, earned the District 11 title after beating West Plains 2-1 and Logan-Rogersville 3-1.
Now, with 16 teams left in Class 2, Carthage and Willard will hook up at 6 p.m. tonight at the Fair Acres Sports Complex in a rematch of Carthage's 2-0 home win in late September.
While that first game was barely a month ago, it will be a different Carthage team taking the field tonight.
"It's been a very significant progression," Osborne said of the team's identity. "Coming into the season, I knew what types of kids we had and their styles, what works or what should work. Early on this year we weren't playing the way we needed to, mainly with ball movement. We were playing very direct, not valuing possession. Within the last four weeks, it finally started clicking there in the Kickapoo tournament. I could see a light bult go off for a lot of players. Since then our play has been a lot better and a lot more consistent. The first month of the season it was kind of like, 'what team's going to show up tonight?' Since then, we haven't had that problem because they finally figured out what works, what doesn't work and they're showing up playing the right way and sticking to what works best for us in most instances."
Osborne said Willard is a "very good" defensive team, and its defense is difficult to break down. The players are disciplined and patient on defense, he said.
"It'll be a challenge for us to break it down," he said. "Offensively, they usually look to counterattack a lot more than we do. They hope that they can generate turnovers and then get it up field quickly and catch our team out of position. Obviously we like to try to possess the ball and build up play a little bit more than they do, so I'm expecting we should possess the ball quite a bit tomorrow, but we'll have to be very mindful of the counterattack. It's going to be a challenge to break their defense down and create scoring chances."
Page 2 of 2 - The Tigers have five seniors on the varsity roster, and Osborne said Carthage will rely on them to play well Tuesday, and throughout the playoffs, should the Tigers advance. Those seniors include Misael Maturino, Erik Estrada, Victor Lopez, Jose Delval and Ismael Serratos.
"They've been a huge part of what we do the last several years," he said. "Three of them have played some varsity all the way through since they were freshmen. They'll have to play how they're capable of playing for us to continue to advance."
The winner of tonight's game will advance to the round of eight to face either St. Francis Borgia (4-14) or Rolla (23-4). Whoever wins after that will play in the semifinals against one of Perryville (17-6-1), Windsor (11-11-1), Lutheran South (20-5-1), or St. Mary's (9-14-1).