ST. CHARLES – St. Charles East counterattacked early, defended in the middle and welcomed some familiar faces late.
Like most matches this fall, Saturday's 3-0 victory against St. Charles North saw the Saints showcase their versatility. At the end, it included a new wrinkle, an Upstate Eight Conference River Division boys soccer crown.
East outshined its crosstown rivals before a raucous crowd, hustling past the North Stars while vowing to take momentum into the looming IHSA Class 3A Wheaton North Regional. At 15-2-1 (5-1 UEC River), the Saints have served notice.
"We clean it up in the back and we score goals with it," goalkeeper Chris Lucatorto said. "It's a fun season this year."
The Saints' 2-0 halftime cushion eased Lucatorto's ability to exhale through a sequence of North Stars scoring chances down the stretch. Relieving fellow junior Mike Novotny at intermission – coach Paul Jennison's custom throughout the fall – Lucatorto withstood his share of booming free kicks from North defender Justin Stanko and other close-range tries in the final 40 minutes.
North (7-8, 2-4 UEC River) also threatened in the first 15 minutes of the match, but defensive hustle from backs such as Mike Macek and Ben Womac helped turn Novotny saves into a pair of Saints tallies.
East has boasted a strong counterattack all season, and the trend continued Saturday. Bursting up the left flank early in the match, Saints junior midfielder Eric Dietrich scored unsassisted just 7:07 in. A little more than seven minutes later, he took a feed from the defense, headed down the right side and crossed the ball to Kevin Kurtz, who swiftly finished.
"We attack with pace," Dietrich said, "and those two goals were right like that. Speed on the outside kills, and we've got a lot of speed on this team, for sure."
North Stars coach Eric Willson could attest, pinpointing the Saints' hustle as the biggest difference in the game.
Should the seeds hold in the regional semifinals, No. 1 East and No. 8 North would meet in the regional final Oct. 20. It's easy to identify one thing Willson would harp on in a potential rematch.
With 12 minutes remaining before halftime, Saints sophomore defender Brandon Villanueva raced from far downfield to corral North forward Simone Sperarti. Looking to create on the outside, Sperarti eventually was swarmed, and the play resulted in an East throw-in.
"The game was decided based on the fact of who wanted to win the game more. And it was clear over 80 minutes that St. Charles East was the better team in that regard," Willson said. "They came out, they wanted that conference title, they wanted to win this game, and they beat us to every ball out on the field, and that's why they won."
T.C. Hull capped the scoring with 15:37 to play, and East began shuttling in substitutes shortly thereafter. Among those receiving the biggest ovations were senior midfielder Brian Gielow (ankle) and junior defender Kevin Heinrich (collarbone), who both sustained serious injuries earlier this season.
Heinrich wore No. 23, as his original No. 4 jersey had to be surgically removed shortly after he landed sharply on the top of his back during an Aug. 28 match at Streamwood. The Saints lost their UEC River opener, 1-0, then, spoiling a 5-0 start, but the team has hardly wavered in the five weeks since.
With Gielow and Heinrich back, East doesn't plan to change.
"I was smiling ear to ear at that," Lucatorto said. "We had Brian come back in, we had Kevin come back in. We all felt for them. It was heartwarming for all of us."
A few minutes later, the final seconds ticked down on the victory. The elation of a conference title prompted positive feelings, too.