Megan O'Leary has done many things in her St. Charles North girls soccer career. The senior has been a defensive rock, played in a state championship match and contributed in large and small ways to the team's success over the last three seasons.
But she'd never scored a goal -- until Thursday.
O'Leary rose to connect with an Alyssa Brandt left wing corner kick 16 minutes into the second half to head the only goal of the match. The 1-0 win moves the North Stars to 5-1 on the season.
In a way, O'Leary's goal was redemption after narrowly missing from a Brandt corner kick with a quarter-hour left in the first half.
"We've been working hard on those set pieces," O'Leary said. "After I missed first one, I was mad. I was like 'I've got to get the next one.'"
O'Leary flew to meet the ball unmarked at the far post and powered the ball into the net.
"The thing about set pieces is that if you're unmarked for that one second, you take advantage of the opportunity and you score," O'Leary said. "(Brandt) played a perfect ball and I said 'I've got to get this for her.' She keeps playing perfect balls, and I had to do it, and I did, luckily."
O'Leary's goal was the talk of the sideline after the match. Even in an era where defenders move forward frequently and forwards track back to defend, forwards and midfielders still score the majority of goals.
"She's such a quiet person, so it is great to see her get the recognition," St. Charles North coach Ruth Vostal said. "She is an amazing defender and I think she gets overlooked because we expect her to be near-perfect every single time."
While there were chances through an open match for both teams, few were clear-cut opportunities. Time and space in the midfield was limited and that space was even more limited in each penalty area. But the match had a pulse throughout as both teams kept working to work through that contracted space.
"I was telling the girls after, I think this was the most fun 80 minutes I've coached with them," Vostal said. "I think we've had 10-minutes pieces where we've done well. Tonight, from the kickoff, you could see the intensity there."
Here again O'Leary stood out in her normal role as a central defender. She and fellow senior Jenny Barr worked to keep Wheaton Warrenville South (2-2) from scoring.
"They had some tough forwards," O'Leary said. "They were fast, they were quick and we had to keep our feet and keep our marks in the box. They had some quality opportunities and we found a way to dig deep and hold them scoreless."
Chances flowed both ways through a scoreless first half. St. Charles North used a quick break to come close when Ashlyn Walter fed Sophie Pohl, who shot wide of goal. That opportunity came 17 minutes into the match and 1 minute later, Wheaton Warrenville South's Nikki Molino cleared a dangerous ball from the penalty area.
O'Leary's close call came next. Closer to halftime, Alex Immekus cleared off the goal line the Tigers after Danielle Noverini sent a strong pass into the center of the penalty area from which Brandt shot.
"I was pleased with the number of opportunities we created," Vostal said. "Obviously not a lot of them were on-frame. That's fine-tuning that we need to do."
Wheaton Warrenville South's Rachel Erdman had the final effort of the half when she shot over the crossbar following an Erin Madigan corner kick.
"For us, coming off a loss (to Wheaton North) that was both mentally and physically draining -- and we didn't play well, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves," Wheaton Warrenville South coach Guy Callipari said. "I told them that, at this level, you don't have time and space -- and you're good players. I said 'just play and don't worry about the outcome. I told them to just play in the moment, and in the first half, they did a good job of that."
Even before O'Leary's goal, St. Charles North began to limit the Tigers' second half chances. Erdman sent a pass to Anna Fank, who shot over the crossbar at the midpoint of the half. With 11 minutes to play, Alexis Jakuszewski took a free kick that was deflected out for a corner kick. Jakuszewski took that corner kick and Caroline Holmes shot wide.
"The midfield really is congested," Jakuszewski said. "We're trying to work on getting it out on the flanks and trying to work on the sidelines. We did a better job of that, I think."
The Tigers adjusted their game plan as the match progressed, despite failing to find an equalizing goal.
"In the first half, they were trying those through balls on us and I think we were a little surprised by that," Jakuszewski said. "In the second half, we figured it out more and more."
St. Charles North had time for one more well-worked chance. With 8 minutes to play, Brandt cut back the ball to Hanna Durocher, who shot high.
Both teams featured a physical element in their play. For Wheaton Warrenville South, matching St. Charles North's traditional strong play was a good sign.
"They're not going to get into one-v-one environments without letting you know they were there," Callipari said of the North Stars. "They're going to finish the play. We're a little bit slighter, so we need to think faster and move faster, and I think we're capable of doing that."
Finishing its third match in five days, the Tigers now get a day to rest.
"We'll find our way," Callipari said. "I was pleased with the performance. That was a good game for us. We needed something like that to establish an understanding of our ability and to build some confidence for ourselves going forward here."