Scouting the Class 3A state finals
When: Friday and Saturday
Where: North Central College, Naperville
Today's 5 p.m. semifinal
Naperville North (20-0-2) vs. Buffalo Grove (25-2-1)
Lowdown: The Bison won their first division title since 2004, but they've looked like championship material all year long, including Tuesday's impressive 2-0 triumph over Loyola at the Glenbrook South supersectional. Coach Pat Dudle is fortunate to have a club which is so sublimely talented that his main goal is to subtly accent what has become an unstoppable attack. The Bison have gone full tilt all season, with plenty to show for it: trophies at the Lake Park tourney, then the prestigious Pepsi Showdown, and right on through the state tournament series.
The reigning 3A champion Huskies won a major piece of silveware themselves with their recent Naperville Invite crown. Their road to the finals may have been the most difficult of the four team remaining, with wins over state powers and long-time rivals Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley before really going on the road to defeat Collinsville (2-0) at the Normal Community supersectional Tuesday.
History lesson: Under Tom Ford, the Bison made regular stops to the state tournament, finishing second in 1992, then earned fourth-place trophies in 1993 and 1995. This year's team cruised through the Libertyville regional before sealing its passage to state with victories over Central Suburban League champ Glenbrook South (3-1) and MSL division rival Hersey (3-0) before getting perhaps its most important result in program history in nearly 20 years in the supersectional.
Naperville North has made a habit of making the short trip crosstown to North Central since the new millenium. This is the fifth time the Huskies have appeared here, each, interestingly enough, with a different coach in charge. Steve Goletz led the club to its second title ever last spring, and first since the respected Alan Harris guide the 1988 Huskies over Maine South.
Buffalo Grove players to watch: Kelli Zickert (Jr., MF, 31g, 11a), Skylar Groth (Jr., MF, 8g,5a), Jessica Kovach (So., MF, 7a), Colleen Zickert (Jr., MF, 8g,9a), Allie Ingham (Jr., MF-F, 15g), Sarah O'Connor (So., GK, 0.51 GAA, 17 shutouts).
Bison update: Throughout the season, the talk always seems to center around the highly charged atmosphere created by an attack which is potent, plays fast, and is likely one of the most entertaining to watch. The Bison have outscored their opponent 87-13. But look closer at that No. 13 at the end of that goals for and against record. That stingy number is all the more impressive when considered the Bison have a former field player (O'Connor) in goal, and a back line which never played as a unit before this spring.
"O'Connor came to me during the summer and asked if she could have a go at the position, and it didn't take long for her to surprise all of us with the way she handled the position," said Dudle. "She is a CMF for her club team, the Sockers, but you can see how well she reads the game. And she is so athletic, which has allowed her to make some fanstastic saves, while still able to come off her line or go in the air to collect or stop potential dangerous balls. She has been a lifesaver at a very important position, and in front of her, Shannon Guercio has become such a tough, aggressive defender, (Sara) Brawley has made great strides in just one season, and getting JayJay (Lowery) back with us has helped provide the extra presence we needed to make that group complete."
When you talk about Naperville North, the conversation must begin with Kentucky-bound all-American Zoe Swift (15 goals), a gifted game-changer who has struck for 5 postseason goals to help the Huskies advance. However, opponents cannot put all of their focus on the three-time all-state striker, or her teammates Abbie Boswell (27 goals) or captain Christa Szalach will make you pay.
"Being a part of a tough soccer conference like the MSL has helped prepare us for the postseason," said Dudle. "There are no easy games, and each one of them is a battle. We had a little hiccup at the end with consecutive losses to Conant and Barrington, but we proved to be resilient, and when the new season started with the playoffs, it was back to business, and the team has never let up. Naperville is the top team in the state, and they deserve a lot of respect, but we're looking forward to this semifinal, and we are planning on representing our program and the MSL at a high level this Friday."
Today's 7 p.m. semifinal
Barrington (18-4-1) vs. Hinsdale Central (16-3-3)
Lowdown: Barrington's four-year wait for a supersectional trophy came to and end on its home park Wednesday as the Fillies defeated 2012 state runner-up St. Charles North (3-1). The capture of the MSL Cup trophy has also become an obsession for coach Ryan Stengren since taking over the Fillies program, and the former Hersey and Akron University star led his club club to its second consecutive MSL title after its commanding performance in a 2-0 victory over Buffalo Grove. The Fillies avenged an early season loss to the Bison that early May evening and might have the chance one more time to face their conference rivals as the brackets spared the two high profile clubs from one another in the semifinals. Stengren has transformed his club into a state giant over the past 4-5 seasons. Yet in that span, the Fillies hadn't made it state, as four straight heartbreaking supersectional losses ended their postseasons.
The Fillies might have been flying under the radar following a 1-0 loss to Naperville Central in the semifinals of the Naperville Invite, but since then, they have gone 9-0, conceding just 2 goals, while bagging 37 of their own.
History lesson: The MSL champs have been to the state finals five times in program history, finishing third in 2002 and second to New Trier at the 2006 tournament. But those finishes have been part of a sensational run by the conference of late. In 2009, both Fremd and Conant advanced to the last four, with the Vikings falling to Hinsdale Central in the final. Two years later, the same two sides played on the last weekend of the season, with Conant getting past their division rivals in the third-place match.
"This is a very good soccer conference, which doesn't get a lot of attention at times, but when you see that three times in the past four years we've had two teams in the state semifinals, it proves just how strong the MSL is," said Stengren.
The Red Devils' route to the semifinals was not as taxing as the other three entrants here, but when you have to beat Lyons Township and Benet for the second time in a in your sectional, it says alot about what this club is made of, which is here for the fourth time in its history.
Barrington players to watch: Molly Pfeiffer (Sr, MF, 12g,11a), Jenna Szczesny (So, F, 23g), Mia Calamari (Jr, MF, 12a), Hannah Luedtke (So, GK), Aimee Pierce (Sr, D), Emily Morin (Sr, D), Annalise Avers (Sr, MF, 7g).
Outlook: The Fillies have more depth than most teams, and Stengren went deep into his roster nearly each time out this season, frequently emplying second-year players who grew up right before the eyes of the coaching staff. "We have a nice blend of veteran and young players who have come together against a difficult nonconference schedule," Stengren said. "Many of our foes were state-ranked teams throughout the season. It's been disappointing to be so close to getting here, but for the first time since Molly (Pfeiffer), Aimee (Pierce) and Emily Morin were freshmen on this team, we've been healthy, and that's been one of the keys to our success this season."
Stengren mentions the trio with fondness and respect, as each is in their final few days with the program. They've played a major role in the development of a core which has grown together in its quest to reach the state finals.
"Those three came in when we had the Daily Herald all-area team captain and All-American, Amy Johnson, leading the way," Stengren said. "And she set such a great example for those girls, who have taken over from (Amy) to become what is good about our soccer program while representing Barrington High School in the finest way."
Pfeiffer, a two-time all-stater and the team's leading scorer, and Jenna Szczesny have formed a dynamic duo most clubs have been unable to keep under wraps. The athletic Mia Calamari patrols the midfield while providing superb dead-ball serves whenever called upon.
Another sophomore, Hannah Luedtke, has blossomed into a first-rate keeper under a former all-stater, Brian Allen, who prepped at Rolling Meadows before moving on to DePaul University, and later took over as the boys soccer coach at Crystal Lake South.
Hinsdale Central will lean on the senior pair of Casey May and Jenn Jarmy, along with junior midfielder Megan Schick. May, an all-state striker, scored the game-winner against Sandburg in Tuesday's 2-0 supersectional win and had 2 goals in the Red Devils' 3-1 defeat of Lyons Township in the sectional final.
-- Mike Garofola