Prairie State coach Carlos Reyes talked to his team before the NJCAA Division II men’s soccer national championship match against Morton College in Arizona.
The Panthers beat Reyes’s Pioneers twice during the regular season, first when they were in a position to win an Illinois Skyway Collegiate Conference championship and then again for a regional title.
“I told them, ‘We know this team. They bested us twice. They deserve to be here, as well,’” Reyes said. “I told them today’s game is redemption. Redemption. Third time is a charm.”
Redemption did indeed come, but it wasn’t easy. In the 67th minute of a scoreless game, Pioneers freshman Agbokou Geoffroy picked up his second yellow card so Prairie State played the rest of the way with only 10 players. Things looked bleak.
That’s about when freshman defender Josh Matiscik entered to play midfield. Coaches told him that he would have to keep running. He couldn’t stop. They needed his energy.
“I went into the game thinking ‘Somebody needs to make a play right here if we’re going to win this game,” Matiscik said.
In the 74th minute, a Pioneers pass that was intended to be a through-ball found the head of a Morton player. Matiscik recognized that player was trying to pass it back to a teammate. He and a different Bears player made contact and Matiscik ended up on the turf. He got up and found the ball right in front of him.
He chipped it by the goalie and into the nylon.
“My goodness, I still can’t believe it really happened,” Matiscik said. “Right away, it was just a feeling that we can’t stop this. We need to keep going because our team was still down a player.”
Prairie State held on for the final 16 minutes to earn a 1-0 win and bring the trophy back home to Chicago Heights.
“I have no idea what came over us,” Matiscik said. “It was almost like we became one as a team. The entire season, I don’t think I’d seen us play with that kind of chemistry as we did throughout the tournament.”
The score was even more notable for Matiscik because he’d never had a chance to win anything in high school. He attended Illiana Christian, which moved from Lansing to Dyer, Ind. in 2018 and wasn’t able to compete for state championships until last year.
The season was a storybook one for Prairie State, but it didn’t start out that way. The Pioneers lost two preseason games and didn’t look great doing it, Reyes said. They needed an at-large bit to qualify for the national tournament after losing in the regional.
“There was a lot of adversity that we needed to overcome,” Reyes said. “Once the committee gave us the chance with the at-large bit, we had nothing to lose. We already lost the conference championship and the regional championship. I told my guys that the committee believes in us, that we are able to compete at the national level.”
At multiple points during the year, Prairie State played a man down after red cards. It’s never an ideal situation but Reyes believed it helped his team come together. It would pay off when the Pioneers needed to win with only 10 on the pitch during the championship game.
Against Oakton College, the Pioneers played a man down for 70 minutes and won 3-2.
“It sounds crazy but when we switched the formation to 4-4-1, everybody just clicked,” Reyes said. “Everybody was just working for each other, sacrificing for each other, fighting for each other.”
The Pioneers were the 11 seed in the national tournament. They opened the pool play with a 2-0 win over No. 2 Jones College but then lost 2-1 to No. 7 Mesa Community College. Jones then beat Mesa, allowing Prairie State to advance on goal differential.
Top-ranked Phoenix was waiting in the semifinal. Reyes said he knew his team couldn’t play the Bears straight up so they decided to lay back and try to counter attack. It was enough, as the Pioneers forced two overtimes and eventually won 4-2 on penalty kicks to set up the final with Morton.
“When you’re in that moment, it’s either play together like you have never before or you’re going to be eaten alive,” Reyes said. “We played phenomenal, like we have never played before, especially in that type of style.”
Reyes was named the coach of the tournament.
“I’m still in shock. It’s what you work for. It’s what you dream for when you’re a coach,” Reyes said. “This was not just a work of my guys or myself. This was a work from God.”