MILWAUKEE — Bobby Gaertig was named defensive soccer player of the year in the Metro Classic Conference last season.
But this season, the Prairie School senior was told he needed to become more offensive minded.
Gaertig led the Hawks with 17 goals during the regular season, then completed an amazing positional transition Saturday as he scored both goals in a 2-0 victory over Milwaukee Saint Thomas More in the WIAA Division 4 state championship game at Uihlein Soccer Park.
It was Prairie’s third state title in the past five seasons and the school’s fifth golden ball. The Hawks (20-4-3) previously won titles in 2004, 2005, 2010 and 2011. Prairie also played for the Division 4 state title last season, but lost 1-0 to University School of Milwaukee.
This year, Gaertig scored a goal in each half against the Cavaliers in a match between two Metro Classic teams. It took some time, but the senior finally got comfortable putting the ball in the net.
“It was a big transition and it took a few games to get used to it,” said Gaertig, who also scored a goal in Prairie’s 6-0 win over Sturgeon Bay in a Division 4 semifinal Thursday. “But I play with some great midfielders, and we really work well together connecting passes.”
A great pass and a momentary lapse in focus by Thomas More led to Prairie’s first goal in the 40th minute. The Cavalier defense stopped for a few seconds when senior Reyes Perez fell to the ground after an apparent foul. But the official let play continue.
While Thomas More looked for a call, Prairie junior Brett Bocciardi launched the ball into the box. Gaertig got behind the back line, barely staying onside, chested the ball once and drove a left-footed shot past keeper Augie Tomski into the net.
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“There was a lot going on in that first goal,” said Thomas More coach Kevin Dineen. “But in the end you have to keep playing and on that play, it cost us.”
“I have told our guys many, many times that you cannot let down for even one second,” said Prairie coach Corey Oakland. “You need to play to the whistle. Plus, Bobby just made a really great play. He chested the ball and took a one-time shot. It was perfect.”
Another great pass led to Gaertig’s second goal in the 48th minute. Hawks senior CJ Thompson sent a cross from the right to the far post, where Gaertig got behind the defense again. His shot was from a tough angle, but beat Tomski to give the Hawks a 2-0 lead.
“Great work by CJ,” Gaertig said.
Trailing by two goals, Thomas More got more offensive. The Cavaliers sent more players forward and created more scoring chances. But the Prairie back line and goalkeeper Trey Eckert would not be breached. Eckert, who played the entire match, made five saves in the second half to post the team’s sixth straight playoff shutout. The Hawks outscored opponents 35-0 in the postseason.
“It’s all about communication,” said senior defender Owen Veranth. “We don’t start every match thinking we will get a shutout, but we know if we do our jobs, there is a pretty good chance it will happen.”
Both teams recorded a shutout when they played in the regular season, settling for a 0-0 draw. But Saturday’s match was a complete opposite from that match, Oakland said.
“In that first game, both teams were charging forward at 100 miles per hour,” Oakland said. “In the regular season, you can lose going forward like that and it won’t matter that much. But we knew today would be a very evenly matched game.”
On Saturday, Gaertig’s newly-honed offensive skills and a solid defense made the difference.
“Last year, things didn’t turn out the way we wanted,” Veranth said about the championship match loss. “We knew how hard we would have to work to get back to state. But that’s what we wanted, and we made it happen.”