Boys soccer: Vernon Hills falls to Niles West
Last fall, junior Owen Ray was a cross country runner for Vernon Hills. He didn't really have thoughts of playing soccer until the soccer season was shifted to spring.
His performance over the last five weeks has helped the Cougars, who suffered a 4-2 loss to in a Central Suburban crossover on Saturday morning in Vernon Hills.
"It's been a lot of fun for me being the first year on the varsity," Ray said. "Because of the COVID, it allowed me to play soccer. I was going to do just cross country and they usually overlap in the fall. It's been a lot of fun, even though its been a shorter season. It's convinced me that next year, I'm sticking with soccer and it's my first love. My whole family are runners and I think I'm decent at running. I wanted to see about varsity cross county, but soccer is more fun. Everybody has been keeping our heads up high. It hasn't been easy, but it's been a lot of fun."
As for running on the field, Ray has the endurance running and with his soccer skills, he's been a good fit for the Cougars.
"It has helped me a lot, because soccer is such a mental game," Ray said. "Just knowing where you need to be, knowing who's open, but cross country was super mental. It's not easy forcing yourself to run 3 miles, running the fastest you can competing against yourself. The fitness (in soccer) has been amazing. My cross country background has helped me keep up the endurance to play a lot of minutes and keep up the endurance."
On Saturday, Vernon Hills (2-5-1) was competitive as it jumped ahead 2-0 in the first half with a penalty kick goal from Valde Nambo before Ryan Kim scored off a Vincent Rodkey assist.
"We played well early in this one," Vernon Hills coach Mike McCaulou said, "against a really good team. They had a good player up top, super player, very fast and athletic. We struggled containing him a little bit. He took advantage of it.
"I still think we played 40 minutes of really good soccer. It's youth. We only have five seniors, but there's no excuses at this time of year. Still, proud of the effort."
Niles West (6-2-2) got all 4 of its goals from Faris Rahic (20 goals, 5 assists) and took over the match.
"(Vernon Hills) plays the right way and tried to connect passes," Niles West coach Milo Cejovic said. "Our kids were a little lethargic at the start and I had to light them up a little bit. We just had to turn things up."
The Cougars still have a shot at the Central Suburban North title going into the final week with three home games as they sit at 1-0-1. Vernon Hills will play Maine East Tuesday, Niles North Thursday and Deerfield next Saturday. Games against Deerfield and Niles North were postponed earlier in the season because of COVID issues on their teams.
"Two teams had to postpone against us due to COVID situations," McCaulou said. "That's kind of the world that we've been living in this season in all sports. I feel bad for those schools and those athletes, opponents and everybody involved. It's tough for everybody. Sometimes, it's a little uncontrollable. We look forward to finishing strong in our division next week and contending for a conference championship."