By JOHN McCABE
WHEELING - Stephen Schlegel has made some big saves in his young soccer career, but none any bigger than the one he made last weekend when, in the final seconds of the West Virginia Soccer Association's 1997 Olympic Development Program team's 1-0 victory over Virginia, the Wheeling goalkeeper stuffed a one-on-one opportunity to secure a victory.
In soccer, a one-on-one matchup between a goalkeeper and an opposing player typically ends with the ball in the back of the net. Schlegel's save, along with several others in the match's final minutes, has the 16-member 1997s heading to Kirkwood, Del., for a June 21 regional semifinal matchup against a team from Vermont.
The winner of that match will face a team from New Jersey or eastern Pennsylvania, which face off in the region's other semifinal, for a chance to head to the national finals later this year in Houston.
"They were big saves, one literally in the final seconds," Schlegel, the son of Charlie and Paula Schlegel, said of the Virginia game, noting the whistle blew to end the match right after his stop. "It was a difficult one-on-one, the odds were in his favor. I feel very fortunate that we're in this position."
Schlegel, who is the team's only goalkeeper, said the Virginia attacker came in from his left and attempted to slide the ball into the net at the far post. He said he got his foot on it to secure the win.
"I'm just happy to be part of the team's success. This is a very West Virginia story, because all the success we are experiencing is coming through hard work," Schlegel said.
This marks the first time a West Virginia team has made it to an Olympic Development Program regional semifinal, 1997 assistant coach Mark Conley said.
Schlegel and the 1997 defense stood out during the three games leading up to the regional semifinal, posting three shutouts to go 2-0-1 in the opening rounds of the U.S. Youth Soccer Region I ODP Tournament in Lawrenceville, N.J.
Conley said Schlegel, who will be a senior at Wheeling Park High School this fall, has set himself apart in net. What makes his rise even more impressive is that most of the team's players hail from the Charleston-Huntington area, and Schlegel has had to earn their trust in goal.
"A lot of these guys have known each other a long time, but (Stephen) came in, separated himself in camp and practices, and now the guys trust him," Conley said. "They know he's there, they know he's going to keep them in the game. And without a good goalkeeper, we would not be where we're at now, especially at this level of competition.
"Given our state's geography and the difficulty in getting our kids together for practice, we have to stress a blue-collar mentality, which requires very, very good goalkeeping, which we are fortunate enough to have. ... I don't think we would be playing in Delaware next weekend without (Stephen's) play."
He referenced the goalie play in Thursday's opening match of the World Cup between Brazil and Croatia to the importance of having a solid netminder.
"You take one minute off, one second, and it can cost you," he said. "I think we saw that (Thursday) in the Brazil game. Croatia's goalie made a couple of mistakes and it cost them."
1997 coach Bob Gray, who also heads Marshall University's men's soccer program, called Schlegel a team leader, noting he is not hesitant to position his defenders during play.
"Stephen has really stepped up his play in net, and he made some outstanding saves against Virginia," Gray said, noting Virginia's Olympic Development squad has about 140,000 youth soccer players in that state to draw from, compared to about 16,000 in West Virginia. "I'm very happy with where we're at right now, and if we continue to play solid defense and are strong in net, good things will happen."
Conley said he got to know more about Schlegel through contacts in the Wheeling area with FC United and also West Liberty University women's soccer coach Barry Christmas.
He said he and Gray are asking the players to enjoy their trip to Delaware while also making the best of the opportunity.
"We really want them to maintain extreme focus during the weekend. One of the comments from our weekend in New Jersey was how difficult it was to maintain our focus and stay involved for a full 90 minutes. That's something we are working on," he said.
As for Schlegel's future, along with the regional semifinals he's preparing for Wheeling Park's upcoming soccer season and also a club soccer regional match later this month in Rhode Island. Long term, he's hoping to continue his soccer career in college.
"I'd be happy to go anywhere, as long as I can continue to play soccer. My academics are very strong, I just want to continue to play," he said.