When Eric Willson took over the St. Charles North boys soccer program in 2004, North was in just its fourth year of varsity competition, searching for a separate identity from its successful rival on the other side of the Fox River.
Willson's admitted he's enjoyed the 14-year ride its taken him on, but he also concluded this season in particular compared to the other 13 that the 2017 team has a unique contrast from the others.
"I think we've had a lot of teams who've had a decent amount of chemistry," Willson said. "I'm not sure we've had a group that's been this kind of 'all in it for each other' kind of deal and I think this hopefully teaches some of the younger guys how important that is and how far that can take you."
The "fight for me, fight for you" team that became the 2017 North Stars took them to places this year they couldn't have imagined: first-time PepsiCo champs and a second supersectional championship that this time earned a berth to their first Final Four.
Though their ultimate goal of a state title wasn't reached this weekend at Hoffman Estates thanks to a 4-3 loss to Bradley-Bourbonnias in a foggy third-place game Saturday, there were so many things clear to North Stars in 2017 with many trophies as proof.
The North Stars (16-4-4) had the season of seasons but will add one more to their collection, an IHSA state trophy for finishing in fourth to culminate a great 2017 -- a trophy that almost said third place with the epic rally North had in the second half after having the run of play for the first 40 minutes but a 2-0 deficit.
With team unity in warrior mode, Jake Persenico finished up a Peter Willis throw in the 45th minute from 10-yards out to cut the Boilermakers' lead to 2-1. When Nick Markanich carved his way down the left side and scored less than a minute later for a 3-1 Bradly lead, Bernard Elegbede responded the only way he knew how when he chipped in a rebound from Kyle Kolodziej's header off the crossbar to make 3-2 in the 66th minute and there was a sense of magic in the air.
"A lot of teams in the third place game of the state finals can hang their heads after they're down 2-0 at half," said Elegbede, who saw his team have a 25-12 shot advantage. "But it just shows the character these guys have and that's the type of season we want to remember for the rest of our lives."
Two minutes later, it was tied. Matt Beaulieu's intention to cross just outside of the box along the right sideline deflected off a Bradley-Bourbonnais player up into the left corner to send an up-and-down like game completely upside down.
"I was trying to cross it and I got a lucky deflection and I'll take," Beaulieu said of getting a ball to the box. "That's all anyone tries to do at the end of the game when you're in that kind of situation and it was fortunate to end up where it did."
Unfortunately for St. Charles North, Nick Markanich was always in the right place at the right time and set two IHSA records in the process. Markanich capped an incredible weekend with his fourth goal of the game, the game-winner on a cross from his brother Anthony in the 76th minute.
That goal set a record for most goals in a Class 3A state match with 4 (Zach Schoffstall from Fremd scored 3 against Streamwood in 2014) and Markanich totaled 5 for the weekend, which broke anther record for most in a weekend in Class 3A, set previously by Anthony Colaizzi of Warren in 2006.
"It's a great accomplishment," said Markanich, as he finished with 52 goals on the season. "(The last goal) was kind of hard since we had 10 players on the field. We tried to the find the opportunity as soon as we (could). We're really good at counterattacking so we were looking for an opportunity to do that and when we did we made it count."
While Markanich's ability in the clutch was a bitter pill to swallow in the midst of an improbable comeback, to go down 2 goals on two separate occasions in the last game of the year with a state trophy on the line, the heart of the North Stars couldn't have been defined any better.
"To still find a way to get yourself back into the game was obviously a credit to these guys," Willson said. "Just believing in each other and not giving up. We're certainly proud that we found a way back into the game."