Even before it took the field on Wednesday against East Aurora, Kaneland's girls soccer team knew it had sealed the West Aurora Invitational title.
The Knights refused to relax against the Tomcats. Eight different players scored goals in an 8-1 victory that raised their record to 6-1.
"It was a really nice win," Kaneland junior Madison Jurcenko said. "We haven't won it in a few years and it's really nice to come away with three wins here and to win the tournament."
Jurcenko scored one of her team's goals and added 2 assists while the Knights won West Aurora's invitational for the first time since 2010.
"We've got a really strong team," Jurcenko said. "We've got a lot of depth with 22 players. We've been playing well, with six wins in a row."
While the Knights only graduated three players from last year's team, there is considerable youth this season. The Knights have three freshmen on the varsity and a further seven sophomores. Freshmen Paige Guyton and Holly Collingbourne scored, as did sophomores Ashley Crotteau and Kiandra Powell.
"Really, we kind of replaced what we lost and we built up our team this year," Jurcenko said. "We've improved even more since last year."
Kaneland's other goal scorers were Courtney Diddell, Delaney Stryczek and Brittany Olson.
"It's nice to get some distribution," Kaneland coach Scott Parillo said. "That's how it's been going ever since the second game of the season, when Brittany Olson scored all three goals against Rosary. Whoever happens to be there, is there. We were fortunate to knock a bunch in today."
Despite the abundance of youth on the roster, the more experienced players provide stability for a program that has grown in Parillo's 10 years as head coach.
"We know we're doing good things," Parillo said. "The girls are working extremely hard and it's paying off for them. Sometimes you work hard and the record doesn't show it. So far, it does show that we've been working extremely hard."
Not only are the Knights winning, they are playing well, whether on their massive, well-groomed home field or on artificial surfaces such as West Aurora's, where they moved the ball with ease.
"We're possessing the ball real well," Parillo said. "We're really not giving the other teams too many quality shots on goal, and obviously that's paying off against us. Hopefully we can keep that going for a while. I know we'll run into a stinker of a game, where we don't play so well. But I'm pretty happy with the way we're playing right now."
Kaneland went 3-0 in the tournament, defeating Rosary, West Aurora and finally East Aurora. The victory over Rosary was the Knights' second this season against a team that has given them fits over the years.
"We've lost to Rosary in the playoffs three of the last four years," Jurcenko said. "To beat them and West Aurora, who we've struggled against, is a real confidence booster."
The Knights are on a six-match winning streak since dropping the season-opener to Normal West.
"We opened against an Elite Eight team from last year," Parillo said. "We hadn't been outside, hadn't taken a shot on goal and we hadn't even shot on our own goalie. We actually grabbed the lead, and then we lost 2-1. But we've been rolling since then."
The Normal West match is another example of the improved schedule Kaneland has put together. For the second consecutive year, the Knights have a match scheduled with St. Charles East (May 10.)
"This is the third time that we've won this (West Aurora) tournament and I'm happy for the kids," Parillo said. "What a great thing for them."
West Aurora 5, Rosary 2: In recent weeks, West Aurora has spent some extra time making Sam O'Brien's flip throw-in more of an offensive weapon.
Wednesday against Rosary in the team's finale of the West Aurora Invitiational, O'Brien and the Blackhawks showed how dangerous that flip throw-in can be. From seven minutes into the match, when the senior took her first of those throw-ins, the Royals struggled to deal with the threat.
In fact, that opening throw-in went from somersaulting O'Brien's hands into the back of the net.
West Aurora won the match 5-2, and O'Brien had a hand, or foot, in all of them.
The Blackhawks (4-3-2) led 4-0 at halftime, when they had a strong wind at their backs. While that weather had an effect on all players, it was especially beneficial to O'Brien's flip throw-ins.
"The best is when you have the flip throw going with the wind," O'Brien said. "That's the best time to do it. It curls in toward the goal, so all a player has to do is run right into it and it's an easy goal."
Less than one minute after O'Brien opened the scoring, she took another flip throw-in. This time, the ball got knocked around in the penalty area. Eventually, Alicia Rotolo passed to Yulissa Espino, who shot into the net from the top of the penalty area.
Fourteen minutes into the match, West Aurora had a corner kick, and O'Brien sent the ball into the penalty area. The ball was not cleared and both teams got feet to it before Cristina Sosa scored from close range to give the Blackhawks a 3-0 lead.
In the 20th minute of play, West Aurora took its lead to 4-0 when O'Brien took an Espino pass and scored.
O'Brien has been doing a handspring with a soccer ball in her hands throughout her high school career. And the Northern Illinois recruit figures to have more flip throw-ins in her future.
"It's definitely improved over the years," O'Brien said. "Freshman year, it wasn't as good. But it's getting better, and I can throw from further out. It's helping for college, because they say they pretty much want me taking every throw-in. I've been practicing it a lot to get better at it."
The Blackhawks have been working specifically to improve their effectiveness with the tactic.
"We end almost every practice just with coach (Kevin) Briars and I throwing balls into the penalty area for them," West Aurora coach Laura Wagley said. "And if they don't get to them, they run. We have been focusing on it a lot because we need to take advantage of it. When we get into conference play, we don't get a lot of chances, and that (flip throw-in) is our chance."
Six minutes into the second half, O'Brien once again took a flip throw-in. In the ensuing scramble, Abriyah Zeitz headed, Rosary did not clear and Mariyah Zeitz scored.
"We get in team's heads a little bit with the flip throw," Wagley said. "They know it's coming, and they know it's hard to defend, especially when it's windy like tonight. It gets caught up in there and there are a number of girls in the box going for it."
West Aurora entered Wednesday's match knowing they couldn't win the invitational crown. That honor went to Kaneland, which defeated not only the Blackhawks and Royals but also East Aurora. Finishing the tournament with a victory was a good result as the team prepares to battle Naperville Central on Thursday.
"I'm really happy with how our team is doing -- we've been doing really well," O'Brien said. "I'm excited for the end of the season a lot more than I normally would be. Our team is doing better."
With Thursday's match in mind, O'Brien and many of West Aurora's starters were rested for extended periods against Rosary.
"We wanted to make sure that our non-starters coming off the bench had the same intensity," Wagley said. "That's when (Rosary) got those goals."
Rosary (2-5) had strong moments early in the match, in which Anna Sheen had a pair of efforts on goal.
Then West Aurora's dominance and Rosary's troubles with the flip throw-in took the Royals out of the match.
"The first took the girls by surprise," Rosary coach Brian Frank said. "The next came right after that, right off the bat. We were playing so well. By the time we regrouped, we had let in another two goals. Those kind of things can't happen. We had a breakdown for 20 minutes."
Rosary rallied late, however. Maria Witte, in her first match back following three weeks on the sidelines after suffering a concussion, broke the shutout with 27 minutes to play.
Gabriella Wagoner fought to win the ball with six minutes left and rolled her team's second goal into the net. The Royals had a penalty kick saved inside the final 2 minutes of play that could have closed the gap further.
"I was pleased with the way we played in the second half," Frank said. "They were looking for opportunities and the holes in their defense."
-- Darryl Mellema
For a team that graduated nine players from the 2013 team, the Royals knew it would take time to settle into a rhythm this season.
"We've finally gotten (Witte) back tonight and she scored one of the goals and took the penalty kick," Frank said. "We just got her cleared (Tuesday) night. She's a strong player, but she hasn't practiced with the team yet, and we need time to mesh in the center of the field."
-- Darryl Mellema