During the first nine seasons in charge of the Rolling Meadows boys soccer program, coach Peter Mikulak has never seen his club finish in the upper half of the table.
Things are different this fall, though, and with a few new faces to go along with a solid core of returning players, the Mustangs found themselves above the mid-line of the Mid-Suburban League table. They earned a sixth-place overall finish with 18 points and carry a full head of steam in advance of the state tournament, which begins next week.
On Tuesday, the Mustangs (8-5-1) played to a 1-1 draw with host Conant (5-9-5) in an MSL divisional crossover.
"This has been a pretty good season for us thus far -- by wins in the conference and points, our best ever," said Mikulak. "But I think all of our guys know that we've got to put that behind us for now and get ourselves ready for a tough regional opener next week against Schaumburg at the St. Charles East regional."
If not for such an early deadline in the seeding protocol set forth by the IHSA, the No. 8 seed Mustangs may have jumped over Nos. 6 and 7 (Leyden and Conant) to avoid a difficult postseason match with a conference rival.
"Peter and Mike (Drenth) have done a very good job over there this year, and they are so much better than last season, from front-to-back," said Conant coach Jason Franco, whose team will host No. 2 Lake Park next Tuesday in addition to Wheaton Warrenville South, the Cougars' regional-opening opponent. "They had the run of the play today in the first half, and we didn't really find our pace or energy until the last 20 minutes. But we've got to come out in our regional opener with the same energy we had later today if we hope to advance and compete in our regional, likely with Lake Park."
The Mustangs opened crisply, and with Brett Gibson, David Zarate, Mike D'Acquisto and Kou Glaser running through and around the Cougars in the first quarter hour, it appeared as if the visitors would score early and often.
"They did a good job of shredding and stretching us, and it took us awhile to clean things up in our own end," said Franco.
"I thought we did a terrific job of creating some quality chances," said Mikulak, "but we didn't finish, and that's something we have to do in order to have a good tournament."
Rolling Meadows freshman keeper Marc Quezada bravely stopped Ejike Okpa at 39 minutes when the Cougars striker was sent through. Quezada later turned away Chase Hermanson when the hosts' attack really got revved up.
Glaser scored his 11th goal of the season when he and Zarate produced some wonderful combination work to pull the Cougars' backline out of shape in the 45th minute.
"We didn't defend a throw very well in our end, and that resulted in their goal," Franco said. "That's the type of play that can end our season next week."
After Conant keeper Patryk Openchowski stopped Zarate in the 69th minute, the Cougars came down and drew even when a powerful right-footer from Hermanson went off the underside of the bar, spilling free of Quezada and onto the foot of Dino Kandalepas, who never stopped running before driving home his 70th-minute attempt.
"When we were good today, we were very good, but when we weren't, we struggled," said Franco, " so we've got make sure we play at a high level and stay there right from the start from here on out."