Scouting the 37th Mid-Suburban League Cup
Wheeling (16-1-2) at Barrington (15-2-4)
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When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Barrington Community Stadium
Wheeling at glance: The Wildcats lifted the championship trophy at the Glenbrook South tournament in the first week of the season and then never let up on the way to earning their first visit to the MSL Cup since 1995.
"I think we all knew we could be one of the best in the MSL this season, and we certainly got off on the front foot after winning the title at GBS, but after we took just a few minutes to celebrate that it was all business with these guys, and they have been focused on their next goal, and that was reaching this game tonight," said Wheeling coach Ed Uhrik, now in his 10th year directing the program.
The Wildcats' only previous appearance in the MSL Cup came in 1995, when they were represening the MSL North. That season also happens to mark the last time the program won a regional crown, on its way to advancing into the sectional finals.
"We shared the division in (2008), but Hersey got through on the tiebreaker, so we had no interest in being co-champs this year," Uhrik said. "The guys showed it by winning three games in the final week to clinch."
Wheeling led all Mid-Suburban League teams in the final standings with 28 points.
"All of us started out together at the freshmen level, and a few even before high school. So it was now or never, especially for the seniors," said Wheeling co-captain Nathan Laude, who has been a key defensive figure, helping turn what had been a weakness to a strength. After allowing an astounding 58 goals last year, Laude and company have surrendered just 13 in 2013.
"We knew we had the talent and skill to score and create, but you're not going to win a lot of 4-3, 5-4 games, especially here in the MSL," said Uhrik. "So we made defending our top priority right from the start, and you can see how that focus and hard work has paid off for us."
Standout Jose Garcia figured the Cats' 4-3 win in OT over division rival Hersey was perhaps the defining moment thus far for him and his mates.
"Two days before, we lost to Fremd (1-0) while Hersey won in overtime, and a loss then would have put us 2 points behind while giving them the tiebreaker," the all-state midfield candidate. "We took a 3-1 early lead, but they got back even, and there was a lot of pressure on all of us. To come back from all of that to get the win said a lot about us, and our chances after that."
The humble Wildcats co-captain struck for all 4 goals in that key matchup with Hersey, including a brilliant game-winner.
Barrington at a glance: The MSL West champs took off early and never broke stride until officially booking their fifth trip to the MSL Cup in program history. This one might be the sweetest of all for coach Scott Steib.
"Those four teams were each highly skilled and technical when we qualified here before, but I cannot tell you how much I enjoy this team," said Steib. "They work so hard, they care about each other, and they just get things so well, including following the rules. It's all good stuff."
The success the club has enjoyed is a result of hard work in summer league and offseason training sessions.
"I had a feeling we could have a special season," said Barrington senior Connor Hennelly, who along with teammate Sean Kim was eased back gradually after early season injuries. "Our work ethic was way up there, we had a very good keeper (Pat Deroche) coming back, and I knew our defense would be strong. So it was a matter of sorting it all out and getting everybody together, because this is a great group to be a part of."
MSL champs in 2003 and 2004, the Broncos fell short at the hands of Hersey in shootout, both in 2007 and 2008, before returning this fall with 26 points in the MSL table. That put the Broncos 3 points clear of Fremd, which they edged in a hard-fought 2-1 match that was crucial to the divisional crown.
"This is one of the hardest working teams I've ever been around, but when we beat Fremd -- which is always one of the best, and toughest, clubs in the conference, and at their place -- I felt that was the turning point in our season, and that we could go on and win it all after that," said Barrington's David Conrad.
On its way to an 8-1-2 record in the MSL, the Broncos had some troubles -- as many did in the league -- of finding the back of the net. They scored only 15, but allowed just 3 against league foes. For the entire, Barrington is still in single digits, with 9 goals allowed. Of the Broncos' 15 victories, 9 were 1-goal wins, with four coming during the conference campaign.
"We had a few lean years after those back-to-back division championship years in '07 and '08, so we've really enjoyed our success thus far," said Steib. "I am very proud of this group for what they have done so far, proud to be representing the MSL West and very excited to be playing this match at home, before our fans and students."
Steib has won 274 matches in his 14 years coaching the Barrington boys, and over 300 in his career.
Wheeling's leaders: Jose Garcia (Sr., MF, 21g, 6a), Nathan Laude (Sr., D), Fabian Acosta (Jr., D), Frank Estrada (Jr., MF), Juan Hernandez (Sr., D-MF), Luis Herrera (Sr., F, 7g, 6a), Marino Lopez (Sr., DMF), Ivan Mancilla (Sr., F, 7g, 14a), Alfredo Rocha (Sr., D).
Wheeling breakdown: It's no secret the major source of trouble with Wheeling's defense last season was a season-ending injury to Laude. His return to good health this season while paired with Rocha and Acosta, and just behind Marino Lopez, has made this an air-tight unit which moves to the ball quickly in the tackle, and can then turn around and join the attack or initiate with quality distribution.
But make no mistake -- the Wildcats are built to attack. They are a rare team with a generous mix of mobility, acceleration and creativity.
"I've played with both Jose and Luis (Herrera) in club, and I can tell you first-hand, both are very good players, especially Jose, who we have a lot of respect for," said Broncos senior midfielder Logan Morris.
Garcia boasts an outstanding all-around game, and his accurate, clever distribution has become essential to the team's equilibrium. And all the while, he can change the course of games himself.
While the Broncos hope to keep Garcia at bay, that may creates chance for players such as Estrada, Herrera and Ivan Mancilla.
Barrington's leaders: Pat Deroche (Jr, GK, 11.5 shutouts, 0.29), Tyler Anderson (Jr, D), David Conrad (Sr, MF-F, 5a), Jason Frenk (Jr, D), Jack Harrington (Jr, D), Connor Hennelly (Sr, MF), Logan Morris (Sr, MF), Giles Phillips (Jr, D-MF, 4g), Jamie Tausend (Sr, D), Jonathan Wilson (Sr, F-MF, 7g).
Barrington breakdown: The Broncos own one of the most impressive backlines around, complemented by a terrific keeper in Deroche and a hard-working, industrious group in the middle and up top. The overall energy level is impressive, and it's only accentuated when Steib choses to bring on to provide fresh legs.
"We've got a team full of the same type of players, so we don't really loose anything when we bring someone on," Steib said. "That's a real testament to the guys, and kind of a luxury for me and our staff when you think about it."
The Broncos are tough in the tackle and make it a point to with the battle for first and second balls at a high rate.
Steib has had nothing but praise for the likes of Anderson, Frenk, Harrington, Tausend and Shawn Owen for their collective work in the back. They've been resolute, and on most nights, physically imposing.
The Broncos midfielders cover the entire pitch well, and if it comes down to a dead-ball match, Phillips and Wilson will need to be watched closely. But the entire team is skilled and committed to their tactical approach to this area.
-- Mike Garofola