Host Maine East spoiled the coaching debut of Rob Shepard with a late strike, topping visiting Elk Grove 4-3 in a Central Suburban/Mid-Suburban Soccer Challenge match in Park Ridge on Tuesday.
Shepard, who follows longtime Elk Grove head coach Joe Bush, saw his team find the equalizer at the 66th minute but conceded the game-winner two minutes from time when Joe Swoboda fired in his second goal of the evening to give coach Vic DiPrizio's squad the victory.
"It was like a playoff game out there tonight," said DiPrizio, who will retire from teaching after the current school year after 30-plus years in the building.
"There were a lot of goals and it was a good game to watch for the fans. I give Elk Grove a lot of credit for putting us on our heels the entire second half and getting themselves back even until that last-minute goal.
"All of us were anxious to finally play, including me," said Shepard. " I thought after struggling a little bit in that first half, I thought we came out and created some quality chances while putting (Maine East) under pressure for most of the second half. But in the end, we gave up a set-piece goal for the winner, and that was our Achilles' heel last year."
A free-kick frenzy in the first 40 minutes kept the scorekeepers busy as a total of 5 shots found the net.
The first came at just six minutes from Blue Demons captain Dino Tijanic and kept the hosts in front until the quarter-hour, when Manny Pillado drew the Grens even from just outside the box when his left-footed strike went off the bar, the caromed off keeper David Patyk and over the endline.
Two minutes later the Grens took the lead for the only time on this warm evening with a nifty redirected header from Edgar Soto up and over Patyk after teammate and captain Gio Garcia steered a well-paced crossfield free-kick serve.
"We were missing two starters tonight who had to sit out after red cards in our last game of the year," said Garcia, "but players like (Edgar) who is just a sophomore and others came through tonight, especially in the second half when I thought we did a lot of good things in our attack."
The Blue Demons took a 1-goal advantage into the break with a pair of quick strikes from Swoboda and Mumen Hussein just 60 seconds apart. Swoboda's came on a looping corner, while Hussein scored on a long, wind-aided free kick.
If not for a superb point-blank save by Patyk on Dan Gamonov, the match would have been even at the break.
"We weren't as organized as we should be in that first half, and again, we had trouble with our set-piece defense," said Shepard. "But we did everything right in the second half, except in that final few moments of the game."
Soto's finish in the 66th minute was cool and calm after Garcia broke down the Blue Demons along the left side.
But Swoboda, provided the heartbreaker, elevating to thump a header past keeper Alberto Centreno off a corner from Tijanic to end a wild 80 minutes of soccer.