St. Charles North trampled over team after team last season while marching into the 3A girls soccer state championship match, where it came up just short against Naperville North. The Huskies ended up winning it all with a goal in the 120th minute.
This season, with nearly everyone from that squad back, the North Stars look to reach the final weekend of the season once more -- and on Thursday night, coach Ruth Vostal's team opened the season in fine style with an impressive 2-0 victory over host Conant in Hoffman Estates.
Darcy Stoecklin and Hanna Durocher found the back of the net in the first half, and Kenzie Rose and her backline mates were airtight throughout to keep a young and inexperienced Conant team at bay for most of the evening.
"That just might be the best team we see this season," said Conant coach Jason Franco, who begins the process of rebuilding after suffering major losses to last spring's high-profile roster which included two-time Daily Herald all-area captain Courtney Raetzman (now playing at Kentucky) in addition to three-time all-area defender Kelsey Foss.
Those two were key figures during a two-year run which saw the Cougars advance to the state finals twice.
"This is a whole different type of team, but we have some quality players and talent back, and it's going to take some time for things to come together," continued Franco, who will be without super soph Leah Celarek (knee) for about the next six weeks.
Conant seemed to have a case of the nerves in the opening quarter-hour of play, and the North Stars took full advantage with some marvelous soccer, playing through newcomer Elizabeth Parilli at midfield as well as Natalie Wintakes. Both found forwards Alyssa Brandt, Ashlyn Walter and Sophie Pohl on a regular basis.
"We were all pretty anxious to play after spending so much time indoors, and I really feel for our first time out the overall effort was surprisingly good," said Wintakes, a senior.
"There were some basic things we wanted to see out there," said Vostal, "and it didn't take long for the girls to accomplish most of them, especially a lot of 1-2 touches and quick passes, so I was very pleased with the effort and with the way we played from the front to the back."
Franco said beforehand he hoped his team could sit back and absorb the pressure from the high-powered North Stars, and for the most part, the Cougars were able to weather that storm for nearly half an hour.
Then Stoecklin broke through. The junior pounced on a loose ball after Rachel Michieli chipped and hit the bar in the 29th minute.
Later, after the Cougars' duo of Bianca Madonia and Sidney O'Keefe burst forward on a counter and nearly broke free, Rose got the North Stars going the other way just as quickly. Durocher finished with a sublime touch to double the Stars' lead in the 38th minute.
"That first goal was a bad one to give up because we were battling, and playing hard, but the give (them) credit, the second goal was well played," said standout Conant junior defender Drew Wentzel.
Franco felt his club settled into a more relaxed state in the second half. Although the Stars were unable to create any serious chances on Stars keeper Shelby Stitz, the pace and energy from Madonia was a highlight for the Cougars.
Vostal brough most of her first 11 off for good in the 71st minute, then watched a corner from Wentzel throw a scare into the visitors in the closing moments and threaten the shutout for Stitz.
"It was a good first game of the year, and a very good effort from all of the players," said Vostal.