DeKALB – The DeKalb soccer coaches have criticized senior Stephen Darko, every so often, for being overly reliant on his right foot.
So when the reserve forward, an East Aurora transfer by way of Ghana, stole the ball from a Huntley defender in the first half of Saturday's Class 3A Regional championship game and made a bee-line toward the left side of the goal, he thought about using his left foot for a split second.
That thought didn't last long.
Darko took the shot with the outside of his right foot from a difficult angle and found the upper corner to open the scoring. His goal held up for a 1-0 win, giving DeKalb its first regional championship since 2009.
“I was about to shoot with my left because they always get on me, but I was like, 'No, this is not the day, I shouldn't take that risk,” Darko said. “I did it, and it went in. I don't know how it did, but it went in … I'm a forward who hasn't been performing to my level, but I knew today was the day.”
The top-seeded Red Raiders entered the day as the favorite after beating the Barbs twice, 3-1, in last year's regional championship and midway through this season.
And early on, Huntley controlled possession despite facing the wind.
But 11 minutes in, the Barbs took advantage of the wind when Akim Suraji and Misha Ryzhov bent back-to-back corner kicks toward the upper netting before goalkeeper Austen Emery knocked each away.
With 19:27 left in the half, a Huntley defender mis-handled a DeKalb throw in, and Darko collected the ball, sprinted toward the edge of the six-yard box and scored his second goal of the year.
“I felt that we wanted to make a statement in the opening half that it was going to be an 80-minute battle,” said coach Brent McIntosh, who chose to go with the wind in the first half. “We felt that [the wind] might've been a bit of a twelfth-man advantage for us.”
With the wind at their backs, the Red Raiders controlled the second half, with the Barbs sitting back and absorbing pressure.
“We knew we would have to defend a lot,” defender Logan Brown said.
Over the final 13 minutes, the Red Raiders had chance after chance, starting with senior Niko Mihalopoulos's shot from the edge of the penalty area that banged off the cross bar. The senior had two more shots in the next five minutes, sending a volley wide and putting a header from a long free kick just off frame.
But the Barbs were able to hold Huntley off.
McIntosh has stated previously that his team hasn't been as consistent defensively as last season, but the DeKalb defense came up big in its most important game to date.
They'll face McHenry, who lost to Huntley last week, on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in a Class 3A Huntley Sectional semifinal.
“I can't say enough about how much this victory validates the work this group of boys has been doing since June,” McIntosh said. “Huntley was better than us last year, it was just their year. But we just kept believing in our cause, in what we were doing, and we're just a little bit better offensively this year. We have some more dynamic pieces, and we can score from different places and different people. We had a kid coming off the bench who doesn't play a whole lot get an absolutely amazing goal in the playoffs for us.”