By Mike Garofola
Daily Herald Correspondent
Class 3A scouting report
Where: Lincoln-Way North High School, Frankfort
Outlook: The 3A tournament moves to the southwest suburbs after its 10-year run at North Central College in Naperville came to an end last season. For the first time since 2000, the two-day tournament is back on prep soil. Fremd is the only side here which has lifted the championship trophy in its history. None of these Final Four celebrated conference titles this fall. Both Warren and Morton each held No. 1 sectional seeds, while No. 4 Fremd bumped off the Nos. 1 and 2 in their sectional along the way -- Libertyville, then Prospect -- before defeating New Trier. All are deserving of their place in the final weekend of the soccer season, so here's a quick glance at both matches of the day, with both Brian Hindle of Fremd and Daniel Sczcepanek from Warren adding their insight on it all.
Fremd vs. Naperville Central, 5 p.m. today
Storyline: Last year the 2010 Mid-Suburban League champs seemed to have it all: The ultimate leader and star in all-stater Spencer Filosa, top-flight striker Lorenzo Savino, all-state GK Scott Sutarik and a big, strong water-tight back line that contributed to 17 wins in 22 matches.
This year, with just two returners from that starting lineup (Brian Hindle and Eric Leonard), as well as near full-time players Yusuke Kanada and Nick Tambellini ready to assume 80 minute status, hopes weren't quite as high as a year ago.
So coach Steve Keller shook his head in disbelief in the early going after watching his club struggle to find its form. After a 4-0 pasting at the hands of MSL champion Prospect just after Labor Day, Keller had to be wondering how the rest of the season would go as his team fell to 4-2-1.
Four straight victories helped the Vikings get back on track and into the MSL West race once again, but consecutive losses to Barrington and Buffalo Grove ended any hope of a second consecutive trip to the MSL Cup.
"It was after that Buffalo Grove loss when I thought we were in trouble," said Hindle. "(That) was a bad loss for us, but I have to say after that I felt a shift in the way we began to play. Our backline, which was brand new, started to come together, and I think everyone finally began to understand what and how Keller wanted us to play. Even when we lost in OT to Schaumburg at the end of the regular season, all of us knew then we could play at a higher level. Ever since we've been playing our best soccer against some of the best teams around."
Hindle has been a key figure in this turnaround, and he had a good role model in Filosa.
"Spencer could put our team on his shoulders at anytime, and I've tried to follow in his footsteps this year. I learned a lot playing alongside him last year in the middle, and we still talk alot during the season, which helps me also."
Filosa is starting in the middle at Eastern Illinois this fall.
Keller says his captain understands how and what it takes to inspire his mates when they need it the most, and whether it comes from one of his trademark free kick strikes into the back of the net, an enterprising run and carry, or another fearless tackle in the air, the DePaul-bound Hindle has been central in some impressive victories in the postseason, including the recent thrashing of New Trier in the supersectional at Maine South to send the club through to its eighth appearance in program history.
"This is a team which is all together in everything right now, which includes Keller and our coaching staff, and that's how top teams stay that way, especially during this time of the year," says Hindle, who leads the Vikings in scoring with 5 goals and 19 assists.
Hindle swaps positions well with ever-present marksman Kanada (10 goals) on occasion, but the true strength of the Vikings lies in the midfield, where both he and the sophomore Leonard are the classic box-to-box, touchline-to-touchline players.
Senior Colton Caesius has had complete command in his box during the postseason, particularly in the air, and has the good fortune of having a back three which has kept its shape with another senior, Matt Briars, a key figure in helping keep his mates well stationed from his spot as central defender.
The Vikings dropped a 3-0 decision to the Redhawks in a Best of the West opener in late August, but that's all ancient history when the two sides take the field today. Naperville Central (18-4-0) is here for the first time since 1988 after it booked its place in the Final Four at the expense of Quincy on Tuesday night 2-0. Led by all-state defender Mike Plant and backline mates Sean Stevens and Jay Tegge, the Redhawks have shut out four of their five postseason opponents, including crosstown rival Naperville North (1-0) to capture the sectional title to stun the No. 1 seed and local favorite to win a state title. The Vikings will need to keep an eye on super-quick junior Pat Flynn, who struck the game-winner Batavia and was the architect behind Blake Beehler's 65th minute strike to defeat North. The senior is also the long throw artist for the Redhawks, who hope to make his flip-throws a dangerous feature in their attack.
Warren (22-3-3) vs. Morton (22-3-1), 7 p.m.
Storyline: For all-state midfielder Dan Sczcepanek (20 goals, 21 assists) it was clear to him when the fortunes of his team started turning upward. "When coach (Jason) Ahonen installed Brady Walsh as our starting keeper as a freshmen and brought a handful of sophomores up as well, and me when I was a freshman, he had the vision to foresee if we stayed and played together, that one day we could be where we are today. This is a really tight group, and it's great having a coach like we do, and he's a big part of the success we've enjoyed thus far." That bond helped Warren weather a nasty run of injuries. "When one of our top defenders, Alexis Lopez, went down, Billy Eddy slid over to take over for him in the middle and helped pull things together back there," Szczepanek said, "and when there were other injuries, everyone else just had to step up their play during that time. I think we all thought we were in a lot of trouble when Walsh got hurt against Evanston, and even though he returned after missing one match, again, it was a team effort that allowed us to get by with him out." Ahonen, a believer in attacking soccer, makes full use of Szczepanek, who is dangerous both with and without the ball, creating chances for Tony Severini (16 goals), Ryan Foster and Alex Brunnell. While the Blue Devils have shown to have a spendid up-tempo style which allows them a high rate of possession, it's Warren's defense which has truly shined in the postseason.
"We've scored first in each game of the playoffs, and Walsh (14.5 shutouts) has been just terrific, and we've done a great job of taking one match at a time, beginning with Zion-Benton, right on through to Tuesday night when we beat Schaumburg to advance," said Sczcepanek.
The Blue Devils, still a young team overall despite a star-studded senior class, enters on a 9-game winning streak and is unscored upon in all 5 matches of the tournament series. Along the way, the Blue Devils ended the 48-game unbeaten streak of the reigning state champion and top-rated Boylan, as well as NCS rival Lake Zurich when Sczcepanek found the back of the net in the 80th minute. This is the third appearance in the state finals for the Blue Devils and first since 2006, when they brought home a second-place trophy. Ahonen, who is in his fourth year as head coach, was an assistant along with current assistant Doogie Clark under then-head coach coach Jim McNamara when the Blue Devils fell 1-0 to New Trier in the championship match. UIC-bound two-time all-state senior Joel Samarin of Morton will require special attention from Warren. The Mustangs captain is more than capable of upping the tempo and pace at a moment's notice from his midfield spot, efficiently filtering quality balls to Jesus Morales and Marcos Romo up top. The Mustangs, who have advanced seven previous times into the tournament before this week and were fourth in 2006, are a techically gifted side, capable of scoring in bunches if given time and space. But they're also capable of limiting chances for their opponent with junior Joel Leon the key figure along the back as the Mustangs' central defender.
Advancement: Friday's winners move into the championship match at 7 p.m. Saturday, with the third-place match scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.