For 40 minutes, St. Charles East and Lincoln-Way North played one of the most lopsided Class 3A girls soccer semifinals. St. Charles East had nearly all the possession, took nearly all the shots -- and yet the Saints trailed 1-0.
The possession and shot disparity in the Saints favor lasted through the second half -- but the scoreboard also tilted heavily in their favor as well -- ultimately finishing 3-1 -- as St. Charles East advanced to tonight's state title match.
"We just had to say at halftime to go out and do what you can do," St. Charles East coach Paul Jennison said. "There's a lot of self-belief in this team. These girls are driven and motivated."
St. Charles East (19-4-5) plays New Trier in a 7 p.m. match at North Central College's Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium. The Trevians defeated Waubonsie Valley 1-0 in Friday's second semifinal.
The Saints program has won eight state titles, but none since 2000, the year before crosstown rival St. Charles North opened.
"I know a couple of people who played on the team and went to state back when St. Charles was awesome," St. Charles East senior Shannon Rasmussen said. "To hear from them and to hear how proud they are that we're back there, it's awesome to live up to their legacy."
New Trier is another of the state's storied girls soccer programs. The Trevians have won three state titles, most recently in 2006.
"We're just going to come back and defend our legacy," St. Charles East junior Darcy Cunningham said. "We have a great program."
The Phoenix (22-4-1) took the lead in the seventh minute when Rachel Pappas knocked in a loose ball following a throw-in that wasn't cleared from the penalty area. Pappas received the ball after it bobbled off players in the penalty area inside the 6-yard box, and she directed her shot firmly into the net.
"They had a 5-10 minute spell where they were nervous at the start of the game," Jennison said. "That's understandable. It was the first time I've been here and the first time they've been here. But once they settled in, they were at a different level."
That shot ended as Lincoln-Way North's only attempt at goal of the match, finishing outshot 10-1. If shots "off goal" are considered, the disparity is worse -- 22-3 in overall efforts in the contest.
"The first 10 minutes were slow, but we dominated the other 30 minutes," St. Charles East senior Anna Corirossi said. "At halftime, we talked about that the only thing we had to do was finish."
But while it would be easy to say it was just a matter of time before the Saints scored, soccer can be a funny game where upsets of this nature are concerned, and the Phoenix still led at halftime.
"It was one of those things that happens," St. Charles East senior Amanda Hilton said. "We didn't put our heads down. We kept fighting and we all trusted each other. We looked at each other and said 'you can do it.'"
The Saints attacked from the opening minute of the second half, when Phoenix keeper Bethany Dombkowski was fouled as a cross moved through the penalty area. Then Cunningham sent a ball through the penalty area that went untouched for a goal kick.
The pressure continued with Hilton feeding Cunningham, whose right wing cross was pushed out by Dombkowski into the heart of the penalty area, but was cleared. The pressure increased and this time, every effort was aimed toward the goalmouth.
"When you're a possession team like we are, you need to be a little more patient getting the ball on goal," Cunningham said. "We knew we were going to get our shots off, and we just needed to finish on the quality chances we created."
That pressure resulted in the Hilton's equalizing goal in the fourth minute of the second half. Mallory Mollenhauer played a ball from the right portion of midfield toward the left post and Hilton powered a header into the net just inside that left post.
"We knew the time was coming when we would put balls away," Hilton said. "We've been doing it all playoffs so far. It was amazing to score. But whoever scores, we'd be happy for them. Every player on this team is special."
Less than 2 minutes later, the Saints had the lead. First the team tried a "tic-tac-toe" passing move with Corirossi playing a deft pass into space in the penalty area. The Phoenix cleared the threat, but only to Corirossi standing at the top of the penalty area. This time, the Saints senior hit a hard shot that ended in the back of the net.
"I tried to play the ball through to Sophie (Jendrzeczyk) and the defender blocked it and it came right back to my feet," Corirossi said. "I saw the open goal in the right corner and I went for it and it went in."
The Saints dominated with the 2-1 lead, with Lincoln-Way North's midfield forced back among its defense, opening a massive gap between the defensive line and the forwards, allowing for sweeping St. Charles East counterattacks. Kelli Santo Paolo shot just wide with a quarter-hour to play. Sara Buetow, Cunningham and Sophie Jendrzeczyk also had strong efforts at goal.
Playing on the wide surface at North Central suited the Saints. Cunningham frequently rounded the Phoenix defense to create chances.
"I felt I was in a groove today and that nobody could stop me," Cunningham said. "(Jennison) kept telling me to run at the players and to get the ball in front of goal."
The final goal came after the Phoenix keeper was ruled to have stepped out of the penalty area when kicking upfield. From a somewhat disorganized setup, Rasmussen powered the 18-yard free kick into the net.
"The wall was kind of off-centered," Rasmussen said. "I knew it was close enough that I didn't have to power it in. I knew I just needed to slot it into the corner. I just used the side of my foot and passed it in."