FREEBURG, Ill. – Ever since the pandemic, Triad’s playoff runs have looked eerily similar.

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The Knights, who were playing in their fourth straight IHSA Class 2A sectional final Friday afternoon at Freeburg Community High School, faced a very familiar opponent.

The Waterloo Bulldogs.

It was the fourth straight meeting in the sectional championship between the two, and as the stands were once again packed with a spilt sea of red and orange, the outcome of the game was also a familiar one.

A Triad win.

“What’s the old saying, it’s a new sectional but the same old sectional,” Triad head coach Matt Bettlach joked. “We know Waterloo, they’re coming at us. We know they want to beat us, but this team right here was really ready for this challenge.”

Yes, they were.

The Lady Knights won their fifth straight sectional championship with a 2-1 win over Waterloo on a windy Friday afternoon in Freeburg.

The game was moved up to 4 p.m. a few days prior to navigate the predicted storms in the evening. With that change, it brought some dramatic winds, steady between 10-15 mph with gusts up to 25-30 mph.

It’s worth mentioning because it was definitely a factor in the game.

The Knights had the wind at their backs in the first half, and it showed. Waterloo spent most of its time defending in the early goings and trying to prevent the inevitable Triad goal.

The breakthrough came in the seventh minute from sophomore midfielder, turned-forward London Looby. She’s the team’s leading scorer with 15 goals now this season.

According to Bettlach, Looby had played as a midfielder for the Knights, but when she came back this season after playing club, she told her coach that she’s more of a forward now.

“We saw how she could strike a ball, so we gave her a chance, and she’s really taken to it,” Bettlach said.

The Knights hit the crossbar three times in the first half and could have easily led by a handful of goals, but instead, they went into the halftime break with a narrow 1-0 lead and a switch of direction in the wind.

“I know we got one in the first, but I was hoping to get two or three for a little comfort,” Bettlach said. “The way Waterloo plays, we knew they were coming at us. This wind was going to make a difference. They’ve got a long throw and a girl who has great corner kicks.”

It was a corner kick that drew the game level in the 50th minute when Megan Young was waiting at the back post and knocked one in to tie the game at 1-1.

“You saw it in the second half, they were dangerous on their corners and dangerous on their throw-ins, all the way to the last play of the game,” Bettlach said.

Triad responded quickly, just three minutes later with a game-winner. It also came from Looby.

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In the 53rd minute, senior forward Hannah Sparks had a perfect assist when her through ball found Looby mid-stride. Looby shoved off a defender, took a touch around the keeper, and scored comfortably to take the 2-1 lead.

She never would have imagined two goals in the sectional championship and she gave Sparks all the credit for the second one.

“I definitely had a fire inside me to get one, but Hannah’s pass was just amazing, and I couldn’t have done it without that,” Looby said postgame.

The drama with Waterloo goes beyond the playoffs. The two are of course rivals in the Mississippi Valley Conference and meet each other twice a year regardless.

Triad won both regular season meetings by scores of 3-1 on April 2 and 1-0 on April 25. Last year the two split the regular season. The year before that, Triad won state and had only one loss on the season, to Waterloo.

That was the game that really fired up the rivalry.

Looby agreed when asked if her and her teammates roll their eyes a little bit when having to play Waterloo over and over again.

“Yes, because they’re always really aggressive against us and they always put up a really good battle. We always just struggle with them.”

“It probably is a little bit personal,” Looby joked.

There was still a lot of game left to play after the goal in the 53rd minute and the Bulldogs still had the help of the wind in the second half, but Triad’s defense held its own.

“I’m proud of the way they hunkered down, and just battled with them and the elements,” Bettlach said. “Hats off to Waterloo as always, great program.”

The Bulldogs’ season ends at 13-8-3.

The Knights also had a little extra motivation. They hosted and won their own regional before heading to the Freeburg Sectional. Triad now gets to host the super-sectional on Tuesday, May 28 at 6 p.m.

“We’re just glad to be hosting it,” Bettlach said. “That was the goal, get back to Triad and play in front of our home fans. We did a lot of traveling the last few years for super-sectionals.”

“We told the kids right away when we found out we were hosting the regional and the super,” Bettlach continued. “And then the seniors said, ‘Okay girls, let’s do this.’ Especially after last year’s loss in the super-sectional. We’ve got kids on this team that were there and felt the heartbreak. But now they’ve got a chance to be at home with a chance to go to state, and that’s huge for them.”

The Knights will take on another familiar foe in Chatham Glenwood (15-6-1) in the super-sectional. The Titans hosted last season’s super-sectional on a thick grass field with no working scoreboard. It was an unfortunate combination that saw the Knights lose 5-0.

It will be the fourth straight year that these two teams meet in the super-sectional. Triad won the first two meetings in 2021 and 2022 en route to back-to-back state titles.

Last year of course left a bad taste in Triad’s mouth. Immediately following the game against Waterloo, the Knights didn’t know who they were facing yet, but Looby knew who she wanted.

“Honestly, yes,” she said when asked if she wanted to see Chatham again, “because I want revenge against them.”

The winner on Tuesday will book a ticket to the second state semifinal at North Central College in Naperville at 3 p.m. The title game is on Saturday, June 1 at 4:30 p.m. with the third-place game the morning of at 10 a.m.

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