Friday is Prom Night for Conant High School, and the school's girls soccer players have had a goal for the evening for some time.
"One of our main goals was to go into prom with cleats on, leaving right from the game," Conant junior Leah Celarek said.
The Cougars (14-4-2) earned their right to head to the dance creatively-shod thanks to Wednesday's 3-1 Class 3A Conant sectional semifinal victory over Geneva.
The players will be properly attired for Friday's dance, of course, but the shift from cleats to heels will be brief following Friday's 4 p.m. sectional title match with St. Charles East.
"The game's at 4 and then we're going to have to get ready in the locker room. I wouldn't have it any other way. It's going to be so much fun," Celarek said.
Celarek played a large role in her team's victory. She scored the first and third goals of the match and was dangerous any time she got the ball near the penalty area. Her opening goal came in the 10th minute of play while Geneva was struggling to establish itself in the match.
"For those of us who are juniors and those younger than us, we've never made it past the sectional semifinal," Celarek said. "To win and to do it on our home field made it even more special."
Nicole Lorenz played the ball to Celarek, who found the ball in space between defenders. Celarek took a dribble, then shot strongly into the net.
Geneva (14-5-2) struggled early in the match and though the score remained 1-0 at halftime, the Vikings had created very little, especially in the opening quarter of the match.
"I thought we defended well," Conant coach Jason Franco said. "We were nervous about their three forwards. I thought those were three of their best players. I thought we defended them well and then we were able to find connecting passes in the attaching third."
With Geneva's midfielders falling back near the defense, Conant had space in which to operate, and the lynchpin for the hosts was Sidney O'Keeffe, who moved the ball in space in the midfield to the attackers time and again through the first 40 minutes.
With Geneva still sorting things out early in the second half, O'Keeffe played a significant role in the buildup as Conant doubled its lead. Ultimately, Celarek took a shot that Geneva keeper Sam Hauser could not hold. Zoe Shoro ran onto the loose ball and scored from inside the 6-yard box.
"I thought the second goal was an example of what (O'Keeffe) does for us," Franco said. "She finds the ball for us in tight space and she lays the ball off nicely. Those are the moments we need to beat good defenses. You can't just bang it up there and run onto it."
At that moment, 13 minutes into the second half, Geneva roared to life. Less than 90 seconds after Shoro's goal, Michaela Loebel came in on a breakaway and saw her shot rattle the crossbar.
"Once they tapped that second one in, we came to life and we played awesome," Geneva coach Megan Owens said. "But you can't wait until you're 2-0 down. Unfortunately, the goals they scored weren't amazing. It was mental lapses. But to be a solid team in the playoffs, you've got to be a first half team. We just weren't that today."
Five minutes after that near-miss, Loebel scored, finishing a move that began with Taylor Williams, who played a ball forward to Annie Waldoch, whose lead pass found Loebel free for a shot -- and this time Loebel's hard shot tore into the net.
With 21:21 to play, the Vikings continued to press for a goal, but were unable to find a breakthrough. Celarek sealed the victory when her shot with 4 minutes to play caromed off the crossbar and into the goal.
"We came out and played really well," Celarek said. "It was unfortunate we didn't play (Tuesday) night. But we stayed focused and we came out and we fought."
Geneva graduates a core of players who have played three or four years at the varsity level, including Waldoch, Loebel, Hope Goodman, Maggie Bodine, Courtney Lardas, Tory Herbst and Molly Stanfa.
"It's been a fun four years with them," Owens said. "They're a great group of kids. I can't speak highly enough of them. They've really helped our program soar over the years."
Geneva's regional title this season was its fifth in six years, a mark of the success the program has achieved.
"They've really put us on the map," Owens said. "They've left some pretty big holes to fill, especially in terms of experience. It's a tough way for them to end, and everyone's season has to end at some point. You just want to be able to know you left it all on the field, and they did. They were exhausted at the end."