Northlake Christian facing perennial power St. Louis _lowres

Advocate staff photo by APRIL BUFFINGTON -- Northlake's Josh Landry goes after the ball with U High's Miguel Vilas running behind during the Division III boys soccer semifinal game held at UHS' Boss Field/Gill Stadium on Saturday night.

When you play against a program that has won 10 state championships since 1997, you know you’re in for a battle.

That’s what the Northlake Christian boys soccer team faces when it plays in the Louisiana High School Athletic Association Division III championship Thursday against St. Louis. And to compound the situation, the Wolverines will play without their top offensive threat, Mason Cook, who broke his ankle, tibia and fibula in a semifinal playoff last weekend.

But Northlake Christian isn’t just any other soccer club. The Wolverines have reached four of the past five Division III title games and won the championship in the 2010-11 season.

That’s why players and coaches from both teams know it will take maximum effort to earn another title.

The championship match is set for 7:30 p.m. at Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans City Park.

St. Louis is the top seed and Northlake is seeded third.

Northlake coach Nick Chetta said he’s already seen his team’s resiliency after the Wolverines (21-1-8) had to wait 40-plus minutes while Cook was taken by stretcher off the University High field. Northlake withstood the momentum-killing delay and eventually won 3-2 on penalty kicks.

“I’m not nervous at all,” Chetta said. “People may think I’m crazy, but I don’t believe in underdogs. We have a team capable of winning it all this year. We are one of two left standing. Give my boys credit. They’re playing for a title.”

Junior Nathan Pearl said every NCS player will have to pick up their game to make up for the loss of Cook.

“I do feel like we all have to step up,” Pearl said. “Cook is a great player, but we all work hard. We practice hard. Against St. Louis, that’s a high-powered team. We have to give it our all. I trust our players — all of them.”

Senior defender Trace Knoerr said Northlake players will have to play within themselves.

“We need to play our game and keep our heads,” he said. “On defense, we have to cut off the flanks, block the lanes, keep them from getting to the goal. The game is going to be big no matter where or when it’s played.”

St. Louis coach Jason Oertling agreed, and offered praise for the Wolverines, even after the loss of one of the division’s top players.

“We will have to be at our best in my opinion,” Oertling said of Lake Charles-based St. Louis. “I think Northlake has one of the best coaches in the state in Nick Chetta. And after losing in the finals last year to Lusher and now losing Mason Cook to an injury, they’re going to be even more intense, more inspired.”

Oertling leans on junior forward Nick Cironi for scoring, as well as the midfield duo of Michael Buisson and Alexander Stroh. The backfield of Michael Mack, Mac Thompson, Dalton Babineaux, and Joe Manuel has only allowed 17 goals in route to a 20-3-4 for St. Louis.

Northlake goalie Adam Riche, whose strong play against University Lab helped Northlake get into the final again, said St. Louis will be a tough opponent, but he is confident in his team’s ability.

“They’ve been to a lot of state championships. We’ve been to a few,” Riche said. “I can’t imagine a better match … We have a deep bench with athletic players. Mason was our greatest offensive player, but we have some great guys that can score. And our defense is phenomenal. I’m confident.

“We have all talked about Mason, and we were shocked at his injury. We love him as a brother and teammate. But now we have to focus on state. He wants us to win, and we’re going to do everything we can to do that.”