Teams in the bottom half of the Mid-Suburban League girls soccer standings have given the top clubs plenty of trouble this week.
After noticing Rolling Meadows had beaten Fremd, and Hoffman Estates nearly did likewise against Conant, it's no wonder coach Pat Dudle had some concern when his No. 1-rated Bison welcomed divisional rival Prospect on Friday night at Grant Blaney Stadium.
Something Dudle already knows, and it bears repeating: the MSL is one tough soccer conference.
The visiting Knights (1-4-0) proved to be one tough group, taking the defending divisional champs to the brink until a remarkable game-winning strike from Skylar Groth in the 66th minute proved the difference in a 1-0 victory.
"Prospect played a great game tonight," said a relieved Dudle, whose team is 8-0-0 overall and 3-0-0 in the MSL East on the eve of its Pepsi Showdown opener Saturday afternoon. "We were fortunate to have Sarah (O'Connor) get just the tip of her glove on a ball right on the endline, and the duo of Busse and Groth scored a highlight reel goal to get us a hard-fought win.
"But what else do you expect? It's the MSL, and it's a great conference. We came out very strong tonight, but (Prospect) did a good job of taking some things away from us. As we continue to tell the girls, when you're ranked as high as we are, you have to expect teams to play their best against us. So far, I feel like we've done very well responding to that."
The Knights, who are in the midst of a rough stretch on the schedule, did a magnificent job of limiting the touches of BG's best players, while keeping its work rate very high and doing their best to challenge every 50-50 ball. That helped prevent Groth, Jessica Kovach and Colleen Zickert from jump-starting the Bison attack.
"I cannot tell you how proud I am of the total effort our backline gave, and our ability to keep their skilled players under wraps for most of the match," said Prospect coach Tom Froats. "It's too bad we continue to struggle in the attacking third, although we had a couple of very good chances that could have gone our way also."
Knights defenders Rosie Pettenuzzo and teammates Elena Cukurs, Jennifer Novak and Danielle Hamzeloo were ferocious in the tackle from the onset. Although the Bison were aggressive early, they weren't able to get quality chances.
Prospect's Mehgan Rickett came far off her line to win a 50-50 away from BG's Allie Ingham at the edge in the 22nd minute. Minutes later, Kelli Zickert headed wide after the Bison worked a nice short corner, with Kovach providing quality service to Zickert at the far post.
The Bison began the second period much as the first, only this time, the reigning MSL East champs were much sharper with their challenges.
A nice little combo from Groth and Busse saw Ingham miss wide with a diving header. After that, Alyssa Cwidak blocked a well struck close-range shot from Groth before it reached Rickett.
The first of two great opportunites for the Knights put a scare into the Bison's fans after a wonderful ball from Emily Novak set up a terrific cross from Jennifer Novak through the 6. If not for the full extension of O'Connor, the visitors very likely would have equalized in the 48th minute.
Kovach initiated the game-winner when her ball down the left side pried open the Knights' defense. Busse raced to collect the ball, carried down the end line and then sent a superb diagonal ball back to Groth, who drove her one-timer into the far corner.
"It was just a great goal, from a great player," said Froats.
The Knights push numbers forward in search of tying it up, and they nearly got what they were after when a left-footed snap shot in the 78th minute from Kimberly Welk at 30 yards crashed off the bar.
"We've come a long way since the beginning, and have played some of the top teams in the area, including New Trier, Barrington and now Buffalo Grove extremely tough," said Froats. "But we've got to get more efficient in the final third in order to compete at the next level."
The Bison next begin the defense of their Pepsi Showdown crown Saturday at Olympic Park in Schaumburg against Minooka. That starts a string of 6 games in 9 days, inlcuding a matchup at Barrington on Monday night.