Jefferson City had plenty of chances against Springfield Central.
Converting them was the issue.
But the Jays put home two second-half counterattack goals from Ethan Blake and Breck McGrail to solve their struggles in the final third and beat the Bulldogs 3-0 in the Class 4 sectionals Wednesday evening at Eddie Horn Field.
Jefferson City (18-5) will play Saturday at Lee's Summit West (18-5) in the quarterfinals. The Titans defeated Ozark 2-1 to advance Wednesday.
"To be one game short of a Final Four appearance, it's pretty special," Jefferson City coach Scott Blake said after the win. "It's been since 1998 since we've done that, and we're really looking forward to one more game."
The Jays nearly got on the score sheet twice in the first two minutes. In the first minute, Springfield Central goalkeeper Brett Turner charged out to clean up a ball played forward, and the resulting loose ball nearly stayed in play for Darby Hall to poke home, but ran just wide of the near post.
Ethan Blake nearly scored a minute later as Turner came off his line again, but his shot went wide of the far post. Jefferson City was on the attack for the majority of the first half, but couldn't quite connect on that final necessary pass, and the service in on their two corner kicks left something to be desired.
"We had early chances," Scott Blake said. "The first 15, 20 seconds we were skating around the post and I knew that, when we missed those, it probably wouldn't be the way the night would be all night."
After a scramble in the box following the second corner, the ball found its way to the feet of Hall at the top of the box. Hall put his foot through a shot from 20 yards out that went in despite Turner getting a hand to the ball, and the Jays led 1-0 18 minutes into the game and carried that lead into halftime.
The only challenge to that lead came a few minutes later. The Jays thought they had doubled their lead when another shot from distance hit the underside of the crossbar, bounced straight down, back up off of the crossbar and out. Despite appeals, the referee signaled for play to continue.
In response, the Bulldogs built an attack that put Jefferson City's defenders on their heels and lead to a shot in the box for the visiting team. Goalkeeper Toby Hughes was forced to make his toughest save of an otherwise quiet night, and the Jays defense did a good job of quieting Springfield Central forward Noe Winston and attacking midfielder Jung So, who also couldn't quite find the final pass on a cold night.
"I thought we did a phenomenal job," Blake said. "The emphasis was to try to keep everything in front of us, just stay organized, and then we would step to them but then drop a little bit, and the guys have been doing that, really, all postseason, the second half of the season. They've bought into what it takes to get shutouts and what it takes to get wins."
Jefferson City again had the early attacking advantage in the second half, but missed on several opportunities to double their lead. The game opened up as Springfield Central looked for the tying goal and as the cold and exhaustion set in, but the Jays could not find a way forward through the middle against centerback Wyatt Helm or down the flanks.
Eventually, Jefferson City sprung Ethan Blake a 1-on-1 counterattack opportunity which he calmly finished with his right foot into the lower left corner with 22 minutes to play. Six minutes later, Jefferson City created another counter opportunity and this time McGrail finished with his left foot inside the right post, putting the game out of reach.
"We've always been pretty good going forward," Scott Blake said. "For us, there was moments where we were great going forward, we just weren't defending very well early in the season. For us, the key is just picking the right moment for the right play. Second half I thought we were very good at that, first half maybe not so much."
The game was originally scheduled to be played at the 179 Soccer Park on Tuesday but was postponed because of weather. Jefferson City scheduled the game to be played Wednesday at Dwight T. Reed Stadium, but ice in the stands and in the field drainage pipes forced the game to be moved to Westminster College in Fulton, but the field there could not be cleared in time.
"It was kind of stressful, trying to find a field and time changes," Scott Blake said. "This team just wants to play, and they've been very good at just adjusting to our schedule. I feel really good about this team."