It's fitting that St. Charles East's primary school color is orange, because the Saints caught fire at the midpoint of this girls soccer season, turning into a raging inferno that has devoured nearly all in its path through the second half of the campaign.
The blazing Saints have carried their momentum through the postseason literally firing on all cylinders to earn the school's first state finals appearance since 2000. St. Charles East faces Lincoln-Way North today at 5 p.m. at North Central College's Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
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"The girls have gone through the season with zero expectations," St. Charles East coach Paul Jennison said. "They knew they were behind (St. Charles) North and Geneva and maybe at the beginning of the season, behind Batavia too."
The Saints struggled through the opening half of the season. They opened 7-3-3, failed to score in four matches and could have headed to a middling finish to the season. But then they found a spark and embarked on an 11-1-2 run to take them to the state semifinals.
"We've been able to perform without pressure," Jennison said. "They don't worry about what's being said or what's being written about them. Their attitude today is the same as it was on Day 1 -- there's no ego."
At 18-4-5, St. Charles East has the least victories and the most losses of the four semifinalists. After the Saints and Phoenix (22-3-1) battle, New Trier (29-1) meets Waubonsie Valley (22-1-3) in the evening's second semifinal. On Saturday, the third place match starts at 5 p.m. while the state title match kicks off at 7 p.m.
"It's a pleasant surprise for us," Jennison said. "Do I think this team is capable? Absolutely."
What the Saints found as the season progressed, and especially in the postseason, has been their offense. After scoring five goals against West Chicago, the Saints proceeded to hit a strong Wheaton Warrenville South with another five-goal blitz.
"That Wheaton South game was when I think we all realized the potential we had," Jennison said. "That was a very gifted team and a well-coached team and they went into the match with just as much momentum and anticipation as we did. Obviously the way we came out rocked them, but that gave our girls a self-belief that maybe we could make some noise."
The Saints have a strong one-two offensive punch in attacking midfielder Amanda Hilton and winger Darcy Cunningham. Hilton has 16 goals while Cunningham has 15. Forward Sophie Jendrzeczyk added 9 goals while Rion Gaffney has 8 goals for the season.
"We're making our chances count," Jennison said. "These girls have found that if we score early, we can put 3, 4 or 5 on the board at a time. That does give you a lot of momentum going forward."
The combination of Hilton and fellow central midfielder Anna Corirossi has helped shut down a string of opponents this year. While the defense has struggled at times, it has tightened in the postseason. Wheaton Warrenville South was awarded two late penalty kicks and converted both. The other goal allowed in the playoffs came against St. Charles North.
"The girls at the back have been tremendous," Jennison said. "It's been an exceptional journey. There's no ego on this team. We're lucky to have good players, but everyone at this point of the season has good players. It's how you bring them together."
The display cases at St. Charles East are full of girls soccer trophies, but they belong in every sense to another era. Each of the eight state titles and the two third-place finishes came prior to the opening of St. Charles North. The Saints last hoisted a trophy when they won the 2000 state title, the season before the city became home to two girls soccer teams.
"I like to think this means the pinnacle of their careers, the chance to play on the biggest stage some of them will ever play on," Jennison said. "It's a goal they set every year and sometimes I wonder if they grasp their accomplishment. It's going to take some time to understand the journey they have been on."
Having Waubonsie Valley in the finals cements the Upstate Eight as the strongest conference in girls soccer this year. Neuqua Valley, Metea Valley, St. Charles North, Geneva and Batavia all had strong teams this spring.
"It's incredible to think we finished third in our portion of the conference," Jennison said. "The team that beat us was Geneva and the team that tied us was North. To finish third in our conference, there's no shame in that. To be successful, you want to be playing quality competition, and our conference definitely gives you that."