Boys soccer: Scouting the postseason in DuPage County and Fox

One of the most fun things to do at this time of the year for anyone that's interested in high school soccer is to consider potential intriguing matchups and must-watch games if certain outcomes are reached when buzzers sound.

Naperville North, the only program in the last 20 years to win a state championship and finish undefeated, is playing for its fifth state title while defending state champion York (15-0-3) is one of three Class 3A teams entering the postseason. Elgin (16-0-3), which battled the Dukes to a draw in the Streamwood Classic earlier this season, also hasn't been beaten. Those two teams would play for a trip to state in the Streamwood supersectional.

The Maroons may have only won a regional title for the second time in school history last fall, but Elgin's only losing season in the past 10 years was during the abbreviated pandemic spring season in 2021. Indeed, their rise to being one of the top teams in the state didn't just happen overnight and expectations were high from the very start.

"The goals we have for the season (are) not only going back to the sectional final and winning it, but going to state and winning it all in addition to winning our conference," first-year coach Jimmy Romano said before the season started.

Elgin won the Upstate Eight Conference and now begins its pursuit for IHSA hardware.

Naperville North (14-3-4) would certainly enjoy a rematch with Naperville Central (19-3-1), which beat the Huskies 2-1 to win the DuPage Valley Conference. The two rivals could square off in the Bolingbrook sectional final if they win three postseason games to get there.

"It's always tough and we start with Plainfield Central and (coach Kevin) Fitzgerald does a great job with his team," Huskies coach Jim Konrad said. "Obviously, if we could beat them and knock out the next team ... It's fun to begin talking about the big dream but at the end of the day you've got to go one at a time. We've shown we can beat anybody and we've shown that we need to get sharper so that we can head into the playoffs sprinting."

Stevenson (16-0-3) is the final unbeaten team in 3A. There was a fourth unbeaten team as of late last week, but Romeoville (22-1-1) finally tasted defeat in a 4-0 loss to Naperville Central on Thursday.

The Metea Valley regional (aka The mostly Aurora regional) opens with No. 4 East Aurora (11-6-3) vs. No. 14 Metea Valley (4-13-4) and No. 5 West Aurora (13-3-5) vs. No. 12 Neuqua Valley (6-9-2).

The host Mustangs lost to the Tomcats, 2-0, on Sept. 19 and tied the Wildcats in a weather-shortened game, 1-1, the following afternoon.

The Blackhawks tied the Tomcats, 2-2, in late August. They beat the Mustangs, 5-2, in the final game of the regular season for both teams.

"A team needs to win four quality games to be crowned Bolingbrook sectional champs," Blackhawks coach Joe Sustersic said.

In addition to the aforementioned Naperville schools, Plainfield North (18-4-1) is among the top teams in the Bolingbrook sectional, where the host Raiders are a dark horse with 13 wins and young teams like Oswego East are vying for upsets.

Teams that are less familiar with one another will play to extend their respective seasons in the St. Charles North regional with 2019 Class 3A state champs West Chicago (8-5-3) earning a No. 4 seed and taking on No. 13 Addison Trail (9-8-1) before host and No. 6 seed St. Charles North (8-5-4) battles No. 12 Glenbard West (12-10) during Tuesday's regional semis. None of the four schools has faced each other this spring.

"I know some of those guys personally and I know they have a strong team and a really strong offense, but seeds don't matter and the records don't matter now," Addison Trail senior Matias Aguilar said. "It's just you versus them. The records go out the window and it's all about who wants it more."

It's been 10 years since Downers Grove South (8-9-1) and Benet (12-4-1) went head-to-head and they could do it again on Oct. 21 if the No. 3 Redwings defeat No. 14 Proviso West and the No. 6 Mustangs beat No. 11 Kelly.

"We are a team that could make a deep run in the playoffs or fail to bring home even one trophy," Redwings coach Sean Wesley said. "If it turns out to be us and Downers Grove South, I would expect it to be a really tough game."

Benet edged Downers Grove South, 1-0, on a first-half goal from Sam Knapke to win the 2012 Class 3A Downers Grove South regional championship.

"There is nothing easy about IHSA 3A playoffs," Wesley added. "I feel like no matter where they send us it is always a juggernaut. This year is no exception."

One of the more intriguing sectional semifinal possibilities would square up No. 2 Streamwood (9-7-4) with No. 3 Huntley (13-7-2) in the Class 3A Hampshire sectional semifinals.

The Red Raiders open in the Class 3A South Elgin regional against the No. 15 Storm (3-12-4) and with a victory would get either No. 6 Larkin (13-8) or No. 11 Hampshire (6-12-3) in the regional title game.

No. 2 St. Charles East (16-2-4) travels to the Glenbard East regional where the Saints will take on Bartlett (5-14-1) in a semifinal and then either No. 7 Elk Grove Village (10-5-3) or the No. 10 Rams (9-4-2). The Saints blanked the Hawks, 4-0, in their season opener.

"Bartlett has been competitive all season and we know that they will give us their best 80 minutes," Saints coach Vince DiNuzzo said. "As for the postseason, it seems like most teams could not wait for us to get to this point and everyone has a new sign of life with the single elimination tournament."

It's all on the line now.

"Soccer is a beautiful game where anything can happen and you need a little luck to win seven straight matches," DiNuzzo said. "These is a lot of parity in the sectional and we look forward to the challenge that everyone presents."

The winner of No. 8 Lake Park (8-7-3) and No. 9 Glenbard North (8-8-3) will get No. 1 York in the Class 3A Lake Park regional title game on Oct. 22 unless Schaumburg or Hoffman Estates stun the Dukes.

The Lancers and Panthers just saw each other on Sept. 27 as Lake Park celebrated Senior Night in style with a 3-2 win behind goals from Rodrigo Diaz, Anthony Juarez and Alessandro Scalera.

"It's a conference team and every single game we've had in conference has been a good one," Lancers senior Shane Donnelly said. "We're excited to host regionals on our grass field. We've been happy with the results we've gotten there and feel like we can beat any team."

Geneva (8-3-8) returns to an unforgettable scene from just three years ago. The No. 4 Vikings travel to the Conant regional, which they won just three years ago on a Braeden McPheron goal with 1:12 remaining.

Winning another is certainly possible, but won't come easy with No. 11 Wheaton North (7-5-5) standing in the way. The Falcons, who the Vikings just tied 1-1 in a DuKane Conference game on Oct. 4, are seeking revenge. The Vikings beat them twice last year, both by the score of 1-0, including in a regional semifinal.

The Vikings have won two regional titles in the past three years after having not won one since 2010.

Class 2A

Among the area's Class 2A schools, a potential St. Francis (5-6-2) vs. Kaneland (13-8-2) game could happen in the Glenbard South sectional semifinals, but both teams will need to find some magic in the regional. The No. 3 Knights take on No. 6 Rochelle (10-8) and would likely have to then beat No. 2 Sycamore (12-11-1) while the No. 4 Spartans have to beat No. 5 IMSA (11-4-2) and then upset top-seeded Lemont (11-3-7).

Kaneland edged Sycamore, 2-1, on Oct. 1 and lost to Marmion, 3-1, on Oct. 8. If the teams both find slippers they'd play for a sectional title.

Marmion (6-8-5) is one of those rare teams that could climb to or above .500 with a solid playoff run. The No. 2 Cadets are the on-paper favorite in the Hinsdale South regional, opening with winless Providence Catholic (0-15) and likely getting the host Hornets (5-13-1) in the regional final. Things would then get a heck of a lot touhter with top-seeded Rockford Boylan (16-3-1) likely in the Burlington Central sectional semifinals.

Also in 2A, Crystal Lake South (12-4-3) in hosting a regional and trying to advance to state for the third time since 2018. They open the postseason against Lakes (3-13-2). The No. 3 Gators would likely have to deal with No. 1 Grayslake Central (13-1-3) and No. 2 Vernon Hills (10-7-2) in the sectional, but not until the title game with Wauconda (10-3-3) or St. Viator (9-9) as a likely sectional semifinal opponent.

Finally, in Class 1A defending state champion Wheaton Academy remains in the hunt for another trophy. The Warriors (12-4-3) take on Johnsburg (9-10-1) in a sectional game on Tuesday. A victory gets them the winner of Genoa-Kingston (18-4) and Westminster Christian (13-3-1). Meanwhile, Timothy Christian (13-9) hosts Cristo Rey Jesuit (14-7-1) in a sectional final on Tuesday.

Last fall, Wheaton Academy beat Timothy Christian handily in a 1A state semifinal. If they were to have a rematch in the postseason, it would come in the title game on Oct. 29.

Correct perspective

Regardless of what happens this postseason, once again these student-athletes were able to enjoy a full soccer season for just the second straight year after the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 season and the addition of an abbreviated spring 2021 season. Their full seasons are worthy of being celebrated regardless of who comes home with hardware. The hard truth is that time isn't on the high school athlete's side. It may not feel like it, but it goes by quickly and hopefully lessons have been learned by the kids to truly enjoy their time playing for their respective schools.

Consider West Chicago senior Efrain Romero and any other player who missed this season because of injury or suddenly finds themselves unavailable due to an injury or other unfortunate circumstances.

"This season has been full of mixed emotions," he said. "Starting off the season, I was really excited to help out the team as much as I could, showing up to practices, setting up rondos and laughing along with my teammates was an amazing feeling even though I couldn't place a foot on a ball whatsoever."

Once the Wildcats started playing games, thoughts flooded Romero's head.

"The main thought was, 'What could I have been providing for this team if I could physically play,''' he said. "Before my ACL surgery I knew I wanted to be the best I have ever been and make the huge effort to help the team out and win state once again. Unfortunately that didn't happen and I had a major setback. This injury has been the biggest challenge that I've ever faced and am still facing to this day."

Romero continues to support his teammates from a distance and while he's not playing he's already winning at life.

"I know God has great plans for me," he said. "All I have left to do is keep my head up and be ready for the great and bad things that are coming my way."

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