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updated: 6/6/2013 2:58 PM

St. Charles North's Gage fights for everything she's got

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By Darryl Mellema
Daily Herald Correspondent

If you think you're going to be able to keep up with the number of times Alex Gage uses the word "fight" when she's talking about girls soccer -- you are going to need a supercomputer to keep up.

Gage talks about matches in terms of the fight needed, refers to the personal fight that each individual needs to bring to the field on game night, reminds a listener that she needed to fight back from an injury during her junior season.

And all this comes from a player her coach quite correctly calls "the cleanest tough player" she's ever seen.

Where there wasn't any fighting was in the determination that Gage was the best player in the area this year, earning her the honor of being the Captain of the Tri Cities All-Area Girls Soccer team. And she didn't rest on any preseason laurels either -- when her senior season ended in Wednesday's IHSA Class 3A Barrington Supersectional, she had 16 goals and 9 assists and had earned All-State recognition from the Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association.

"She has worked harder than any player I have coached," St. Charles North coach Ruth Vostal said. "Her toughness has always been a key for her. There have been times when she has been absolutely dominant and she was one of the players who always stepped up in the big playoff games for us."

To focus on Gage during a match is to watch a player who can have extended periods -- even entire matches -- where mistakes are counted in single-digits, and breakdowns almost never happen. This was never more in evidence than in the 2012 state championship match against favored Naperville North, where Gage produced an 80-minute display for the ages.

The was back at it again in the supersectional this week, raising her game to the highest level as the North Stars tried in vain to rally from a 3-1 deficit against the host Fillies.

"This program has been huge in my life," Gage said. "My high school years, I've seen myself really grow as a player. I think part of it is playing with awesome players. Leah DeMoss, Paige Dusek, both were very inspirational to me. Lauren Koehl and my sister too. Being able to play with other great players makes you want to play better."

DeMoss was the captain of the All-Area team in 2010 and Gage's sister Sammy earned the honor in 2011. Dusek and Koehl are also heavily honored North Stars who have helped build the program to be one of the strongest in the western suburbs. The Saints have twice finished second in the IHSA tournament (2004 and 2012) and have a third-place trophy (2010) as well -- in just 13 years of existence.

"I think the team itself and everyone around the team holds us to an expectation," Gage said. "We're going to fight. No matter what, we're not going to go out without a fight. The postseason is really what matters. Every one of the girls has so much fight in them. That fight is something extremely special to St. Charles North. I don't see another team that has the fight and the heart as much as St. Charles North."

That fighting spirit was instilled in Alex Gage from an early age. She began playing along with sister Sammy in the back yard when the family lived in Maryland under the tutelage of soccer-playing father Jim Gage. Though Alex has played volleyball and has trained for years in taekwondo, soccer holds a special place.

"Our dad handed the sport down to me and my sister," Alex Gage said. "I was 4 when I started. I had shin guards up to the knee and shorts down to the knee -- no gap. I loved it. My sister and I would go in the back yard and play. Watching her and her love of the game inspired me to play and I've loved it ever since."

As a player, Gage is known for her no-nonsense approach to playing as a defensive midfielder. She times headers perfectly in the same manner as she goes in for tackles. While she might mistime a tackle from time to time, she has never been seen as a dirty player -- and this is where her martial arts training comes into play.

"The whole thing with taekwondo is so much about respect," Gage said. "It's about respect for your friends and your team as well as the other team. You play as hard as you can and to give anything less than your best is to let yourself down. But I don't want to hurt anybody. I respect those players. I've been hurt and it is so terrible to have to watch your team play from the sidelines."

That injury, an ACL tear in her right knee, came between her sophomore and junior high school seasons. She returned to the team early in the 2012 season, but was not at full strength for most of the year.

"That was really hard," Gage said. "Then the game I came back, I got a concussion and I had to sit again, and that was also really hard."

For a player who prides herself on giving all she has -- to be physically below her peak was difficult -- and she had to fight through much of her junior season.

"I had a couple of moments on the field where I said 'this is not me and not how I play,'" Gage said. "That was really hard, to see yourself not at the level you used to be at."

In those difficult months, support was never far away, and by the end of the season, she was back at her peak form.

"My love of the game really helped me through that time," Gage said. "My family dusted my shoulders off and said 'you're going to get back on your feet.' I never would have gotten back if I hadn't given 100 percent."

Gage said the key match was the sectional title match against Schaumburg. The North Stars won 1-0 on penalty kicks. Gage converted her kick -- as did the other four St. Charles North kickers. The North Stars advanced, defeated Barrington in the 2012 supersectional and then upended Downers Grove South in the semifinal before falling to Naperville North.

"Against Schaumburg, when we won on penalty kicks, I had a moment where I forgot about the pain in my knee and I forgot my fear and I played at 100 percent," Gage said. "That was very relieving and very exciting."

She carries the memory of the injury with her all the time, and it is just one more tool to get ready to fight through another match.

"I do think about it before games, when I have to get pumped up," Gage said. "Looking at that scar on my knee is really motivational to me. Sometimes, having the thing that you love taken away from you is the best motivation to come back and improve. I really found out what the game meant to me and what the team meant to me and I had this new love for the game. And I knew that I've got to play as hard as I can."

Standing 5-4 as a defensive midfielder, Gage is often the shortest player in her area of the field. Yet she is renowned for being able to reach balls in the air that other players cannot, and her taekwondo training provides an assist here as well.

"Some of the kicks involve turning and jumping and running," Gage said. "I think my timing in the air is from the timing of the kicks. You couldn't believe the flexibility I've gained, and that helps you kick. And the kicking strength you get really helps too."

Gage's career is now over and she is also graduated from high school. But the memories from the season are still fresh and she enjoys them.

"Aside from the players, Coach Vostal and Coach (Annie) Lauterer are my two favorite coaches of all time," Gage said. "They are always there for the team. They hold you to a standard and they have been there my entire high school career and I can't ask for anything more than that."

The next stop for Alex Gage is Loyola University in Chicago, where she reunites with Sammy, who is a junior on the Ramblers squad this fall. Alex said she plans to major in Criminal Justice and Minor in Spanish.

"I am so excited," she said. "I love playing soccer with my sister. We played together in high school for two years and it was awesome. She's my best friend we have some freaky kind of telepathy on the field. That's really nice."

Alex Gage said the decision to attend Loyola was made independent of the idea that she would be able to play soccer with her sister.

"It's a positive getting to play on the same team as her again," Alex Gage said. "Sam and I work hard for each other. When I was a freshman or a sophomore on the North team, I could always play hard for her because I knew her seasons were almost over. That's how it's going to be at Loyola."

She will, however, miss wearing the Blue and White of St. Charles North.

"I made some amazing relationships," she said. "Vostal, Lauterer, my teammates like Kelly (Manski) and Kenzie (Rose) and others -- those relationships are amazing and friendships are forever."

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