Scouting Class 3A boys soccer playoffs / Northwest
At a glance: On the eve of postseason soccer, optimism is the operative word. Every club has it, and each is unified in the belief that a long playoff run awaits all. The big challenge, of course, is turning such optimism into reality. Several area clubs find themselves in different regional and sectional venues than in years past, making it highly likely that conference rivals will go head-to-head in regional finals, thus reducing the odds for multiple conference entries to advance deep into the tournament. With that said, here's a brief overview of the three sectionals in which our area squads compete.
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Top seeds: Evanston (13-1-5), Wheeling (17-1-2), Chicago Lane (19-1-2), Glenbrook South (12-2-6).
Lowdown: Wheeling is the MSL champs for the first time in program history, yet there is still some restlessness, to be sure, on the part of coach Ed Uhrik. "The last time we were a high seed," he says, "we were upset in the regional final. So we'll be cautious and very respective of anyone we play. From the very beginning, we've challenged this team to play at the highest level, whether during training or in a match, so we feel we'll be ready for what looks like a very difficult group of teams in this sectional." The Wildcats are on course to play No. 7 Niles North (7-2-4) in the regional final on the grass at Maine East, where a victory would send them against either No. 2 seed Chicago Lane or No. 6 seed New Trier in a sectional semifinal. It a victory in the prestigious Pepsi Showdown to finally give Lane widespread acclaim. With dynamic twin brothers Jose and Sergio Fuentes leading the way, Lane coach Andrew Ricks has the talent to emerge victorious. But the Indians in a very difficult foursome at the New Trier regional, with the host Trevians (No. 6) always a disconcerting opponent, especially on their super-wide pitch at the Northfield campus. Another Public League power, Mather, will also be on hand; it was bounced from the city tournament when it was deemed it played an ineligible player. Alan Matan has done a masterful job with No. 8 seed Maine West (14-4-2) in his first year back since 2001 but the Warriors face a difficult regional opener at Loyola against Central Suburban rival Niles West (8-7-2), which put one of the Warriors' losses on them during the middle of the season. "We're fortunate to have the opportunity to avenge that loss, but we know we cannot put too much on extracting revenge, and to just play our game, defend, and play smart," said Matan. The Warriors are fortunate to have a key player such as senior Nelson Herrera. The two-time all-state striker is what everyone in this sectional dreams of having: an ice-cold finisher. The four-year star enters the tournament with a program record 35 goals this fall (91 for his career) and is complemented by the trio of Alex Herrera, Miguel Lopez and Alonso Guerrero, each quite capable of dictating the tempo while adding another dimension to the Warriors' attack.
Advancement: Sectional champ advances to Hersey supersectional.
Top seeds: Barrington (15-3-4), Warren (10-4-6), St. Viator (15-4-1), Hersey (13-3-3).
Lowdown: Both Barrington and St. Viator must put the final day of the regular season behind them in order to kick off the postseason well. On the verge of lifting the big trophy in their respective soccer conferences, both teams fell just short. The Lions shared the ESCC title with Benet after a 1-0 loss Friday. "We have to get over the disappointment of not winning the ESCC outright, and remember it's the start of the new season, and everyone is 0-0," says Viator coach Mike Taylor. "We've got a tough regional opener with our conference rival (Carmel), then maybe a very difficult regional final with Fremd, which has a great coach in Steve Keller." Viator has a formidable quartet in Spencer Moore, Kevin Klinkenberg, Nick Winter and Zach Gyuricza, who can breathe life into the attack in a moment's notice. This venue is the one to watch early of the four sites within this impressive sectional lineup, beginning with No. 11 Fremd (7-7-6) taking on No. 6 Round Lake (16-1-2). The Panthers led Lake County in scoring this fall with 79 goals, thanks in part to Freddie and Eddie Ramirez, which combined for 30 goals and 22 assists. Perhaps another sleeping giant here is No. 8 Libertyville (10-7-0), which has fought a litany of injuries throughout the season. The Wildcats are a concern to No. 1 Barrington and coach Scott Steib. "If we get past our opening match, and Libertyville is our second-round opponent and close to being fit, then we'll be in for a very tough one," he said. "Anything beyond our regional is too far for me to even look at, but I can tell you, our sectional is very deep and talented." Darren Llewellyn, coach of No. 4 Hersey, feels the same as his MSL coaching counterpart when asked to handicap the Lake Forest regional, which includes Lake Zurich (6-9-4), Highland Park (8-7-4) and the host Scouts (11-6-1), who lost in the NSC championship match 4-0 to Lakes two weeks ago. "I really don't know much about the competition in our regional or sectional," Llewelyn said, "but I do know all are capable of rising up to become a dangerous opponent at this time of the year. Our mantra all year is that every game is a final, and we have approached it that way from the very beginning, and will continue to do so beginning this week at regionals." Senior John Cappuccitti was recently named all-state, and along with Michael Kaczor, they lead an imposing Huskies attack.
Advancement: Sectional champ advances to Hersey supersectional.
Top seeds: St. Charles East (18-1-4), Lake Park (16-2-4), Elk Grove (9-5-2), Glenbard North (10-5-2).
Lowdown: Will the first loss of the season for the No. 1 Saints take the pressure off, or keep it on? That's what the rest of the challengers are wondering after Metea Valley gave East its first defeat of the season (3-1) in last week's Upstate Eight championship match. This sectional is a jig-saw puzzle of sorts, as a few missing pieces after the top 4 surely feel they deserved a higher seed. "We feel we might have earned a little bit higher of a seed, but I guess it is what it is," said Rolling Meadows coach Peter Mikulak, whose Mustangs (8-5-1) are seeded No. 8. Rolling Meadows went 6-2-1 in its last nine games and will meet Schaumburg to start with. "I'd like to think we have the guys ready for what lies ahead, but we have a tough first-rounder with (Meadows) and an even tougher second match if we advance, with the top seed," said Schaumburg coach Hamid Mehreiouskouei. No. 2 seed Lake Park and Wisconsin-bound Mike Catalano could emerge as the Lancers have shown they can compete with the best after a 3-3 draw with state-ranked Huntley early on. The Lancers also had a 2-1 victory over another high-ranking club, Naperville Central. Conant coach Jason Franco hopes that as a regional host, his club can use this advantage to eventually upend Lake Park if both advance. First-year coach Rob Shepard had No. 3 Elk Grove in the hunt for an MSL East title up until the final week of the regular season, but the Grens fell off a bit in the end, and will look to bounce back on natural grass at home. They'll hope to earn a regional final spot against (Leyden, 11-8-1) which is a dangerous No. 6 seed.
Advancement: Sectional champ advances to Bartlett supersectional to play Huntley sectional champion.
-- Mike Garofola