For the second consecutive year, Benet saved its best for last.
The Redwings marched into Morris Stadium in Arlington Heights on Friday night and came away with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over host St. Viator to earn a tie for the East Suburban Catholic Conference crown on a night when the Lions (15-4-1, 7-1-0) were chasing history, with what could have been their eighth outright league title.
"It's a terrific way once again to end the season," said Benet coach Sean Wesley, who on the final day of regular-season action last year saw his squad defeat the Lions at home to clinch the conference crown. "St. Viator is so well coached and has such great skill and technical talent. And ever since we lost to Marist (2-0), we were wondering how anyone, especially us, would have a chance at beating (Viator) for the ESCC championship."
St. Viator coach Mike Taylor saw an opportunity to go through an entire league slate without allowing a goal fall to the wayside.
"One of our main goals going into the season was to go through without allowing a goal to be the first in conference history to do so," said Taylor, who's led the Lions to at least a share of 13 conference titles. "But wouldn't you know it -- we give up our first and only goal, and it cost the title outright."
The Lions dominated possession most of the first half but lacked the killer touch in the final third as Benet displayed a knack for bending without breaking.
"We didn't care that St. Viator had 90 percent of the possession," said Benet tri-captain Sam Knapke, "because almost all of it was outside the area. So we knew with our backline and the way we play with a 4-5-1, we could keep them out of our net."
As it happens so often, the Redwings' first solid scoring chance was successfully parlayed into the lone goal of this chilly evening. Junior Kyle Kenagy provided the game-winner at 20 minutes when he slotted over keeper Kevin Napolean. He was starting in place of senior Tom Martin (13 shutouts), who was out of action battling mononucleosis.
The Lions sophomore turned away a quality chance by Kenagy five minutes later, when the Lions' backline was thinking the Redwings were guilty of being offsides.
"We had only three chances in that first half, and we could have been up 3-0 at the break, but we didn't talk about that at the half," Wesley said. "Instead, we concentrated on defending, staying compact and composed, and looking to Kyle up top on the counter."
St. Viator lost all-state midfielder Spencer Moore during the early stages of the second half, but teammates Kevin Klinkenberg, Zach Gyuricza, Nick Winters and Kevin McMahon hammered and hounded from all corners in an effort to get the Lions back level.
"We knocked the ball around, and possessed like crazy, but we just weren't sharp enough in their final third to put one or two in," said Taylor.
Playing with four up top during the last seven minutes of regulation helped the Lions. But a nice tackle from Jack Armonda and some fine work from his backline mates Bobby Smith and Matt Emerick kept St. Viator from getting a good attempt at keeper Nick Senak -- until a sitter fell to Gyuricza off a long throw from Ethan Wolf. The junior dented the bar from 8 yards to all but end the chances for the Lions.
"We're disappointed in the result, but not with the way we played, and having Benet on our schedule for our season finale gets us ready to go for the playoffs, and I am sure for them as well," said Taylor.
St. Viator opens the state tournament in the Carmel regional on Tuesday against the host Corsairs, while the Redwings make a trip to Darien and meet Hinsdale South at the Hornets' regional.
Benet (15-3-1, 7-1-0) now has had at least a share of the ESCC crown six times in program history.