There will likely come a time when Conant and St. Charles North will meet on a much bigger stage, with more at stake. But for now, Conant will gladly celebrate a 3-2 victory for a day or two.
Two of the best girls soccer programs in the state put on a quality 80-minute show Thursday night in Hoffman Estates, with junior Leah Celarek's double the difference as Conant improved to 2-0-0 in a hard-fought contest.
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"For an early season, first-week game, it was a good one to watch," said Conant coach Jason Franco, whose team last season dropped both of its matches to North, the first a 2-0 decision and the last 1-0 in OT in a sectional semifinal. "It's nice to get one against Ruth (Vostal), but you know she will be looking ahead to the state tournament, and if we meet, it will count a whole lot more than tonight."
The hosts, who beat Crystal Lake South 3-0 in its opener three days ago, opened this classy affair by showing plenty of extra pace and energy against the reigning Upstate Eight River champions. Last spring the North Stars provided Vostal with her 200th career victory while capturing an 11th consecutive regional title before falling one victory short of a second straight appearance in the state tournament.
"This was our first time with cleats on, first time outside, and a first time for several of our players, and with all that I thought after we struggled in that first 10 minutes, we played very well," said Vostal.
Celarek, who was a dynamic force at midfield throughout, gave the Cougars the lead at 13 minutes when she roared up the center channel, broke free inside the box and finished with a nicely struck left-footer.
The North Stars (0-1-1) leaned heavily on their backline of Jenny Barr, Megan O'Leary, Darcy Stoecklin and Lauren Nesland in the first quarter-hour as Celarek and Emily Mazurek continued to shine. Ashlyn Walter's equalizer at 20 minutes brought North back into the match for the rest of the first period. Walter was put through on a brilliant ball from teammate Hanna Durocher, and Conant keeper Haley Anderson was unable to stop a sublime finish.
The Stars' ability to get the ball onto the boot of Lizzie Parrilli and Durocher more frequently helped revved the attack, which made for plenty more possession and creative play.
North was awarded a PK on a foul inside the box, and Alyssa Brandt took full advantage by driving her spot kick in at 48 minutes to give the Stars their first lead of the night.
Drew Wentzel, who is not only a top-flight defender but also a dead-ball artist, showed her talent when she buried a 22-yard free kick off the glove of Stars keeper Shelby Stitz.
The Wentzel goal inspired the Cougars' attack.
Mazurek provided a run and carry up the center channel, then veered to her right before finding Sidney O'Keeffe. The junior striker was patient enough to allowe Celarek to get into the tail-end of her back post run before putting the ball onto the foot of her teammate, who scored by going over Stitz.
The 63rd-minute goal help up thanks to Wentzel, Katie Lomas and Stephanie Buga along the back. They managed to keep the likes of Sophie Pohl, Walter, and Barr at bay as the North Stars looked to draw even in the closing minutes.
"Again, we saw a lot of good things tonight, and we came away with some ideas and thoughts on what to work on, and maybe change when we get back together," said Vostal. "This is always a great first-game opponent for us and one we look forward to playing. Hopefully we'll see them again later on."
Conant, too, was glad to such a quality test early in the season.
"It was kind of nice to come out here and beat the No. 13-rated team in the nation, and it was also nice to be on the other side of things after they ended our season last year," said Wentzel. "But we've got a long way to go. This is a new and fresh group this season that needs to continue to work hard while finding our chemistry if we hope to have the type of year we all want to have."