ST. CHARLES – Justin Stanko strikes an imposing figure along the St. Charles North boys soccer team’s back line.
Better yet for the North Stars, the towering senior has a skill set to match.
“It’s not just having a 6-foot-5 guy in the middle of the field, but it’s having one that can win just about every 50-50 ball, and those little things do a world of difference for you in a game,” North coach Eric Willson said. “And on set plays, to have a kid come into the box and, if nothing else, give teams something to really be concerned with, that can give us an advantage.”
The North Stars, who open IHSA Class 3A Wheaton North Regional play tonight in a semifinal against Glenbard North, needed all the advantages they could scrape together during an uncharacteristically lukewarm 8-8-2 regular season.
“I actually think our [regular season] has gotten us to the point where we’re now focused and we know what we have to do,” Stanko said. “We’ve recognized what we’ve done wrong in our roller coaster season, so I think we’re going to do very well.”
Among the adjustments North might make for the postseason is shifting Stanko from his traditional center-back position to a defensive-midfielder role, a move the North Stars have experimented with in recent practices. The move could help North sharpen what occasionally has been a lagging attack.
“It’s a learning experience just because I usually don’t play there. I’ve never played there in my life,” Stanko said. “It’s kind of late in the season but, you know what, coach knows best.”
Stanko, a Loyola recruit, is relieved to be playing at a high level anywhere on the field after what he described as an “awful” ankle injury during club season in which he said “all my ligaments were just gone and all my blood vessels popped.”
But physical therapy and rest helped Stanko regain his skill set, which includes a booming shot that the North Stars use to their advantage on free kicks.
“The kid’s got a leg on him – 70, 80 yards, and he can put the ball onto the 6-yard line for us, and with some big targets like (Kyle) Swanson, that’s an excellent thing,” Willson said. “Other than that, we’ve seen him be pretty accurate from 35, 40, 45 yards out on direct free kicks to put it in frame and make the keeper make a save.”
Defensively, Stanko has been an anchor along with fellow back-line veteran Justin Sanchez. But Willson said it’s been challenging for North’s defense to steadily progress as the other defensive spots have in flux, with injury and illness factoring in. Juniors Nolan Pellitier and Jack Fries have gained a foothold defensively late in the season, Willson said.
If North ousts Glenbard North in the 8-9 matchup tonight, a likely rematch with rival St. Charles East would await in Saturday’s regional final.
For now, Stanko is putting a potential East-North showdown out of mind, and same goes for his upcoming winter on the North basketball team and even a much-anticipated college soccer career at Loyola, where his big brother, Brandon, used to attend and his father, Brian, heads up the accounting department.
He’d rather live in the moment, an inclination that has been proven useful this season for the North Stars.
“I think he’ll bring a lighter side to a training session, and I think that can be a good thing, especially when you’re going through an up-and-down season where you’re winning some games, losing some games,” Willson said. “It’s important to keep the team together and to keep the chemistry together and get yourselves as prepared as you possibly can for the postseason without feeling frustrated when you’re losing games. Justin’s done a great job of that.”
BOYS SOCCER REGIONAL SEMIFINAL SCHEDULE
Class 3A Wheaton North Regional
(1) St. Charles East vs. (14) Wheaton North, 4:30 p.m.
(8) St. Charles North vs. (9) Glenbard North, 6:30 p.m.
Class 3A Naperville North Regional
(6) Wheaton Warrenville South vs. (10) Marmion, 7 p.m.
Class 2A Nazareth Academy Regional
(5) St. Francis vs. (12) Chicago Kennedy, 4 p.m.
Class 2A Chicago University Regional
(1) Wheaton Academy vs. (16) Chicago Jones, 4:30 p.m.
Class 3A Naperville Central Regional
(1) Naperville Central vs. (16) Geneva, 5 p.m.
Class 2A Burlington Central Regional
(1) Kaneland vs. (4) IMSA, 5 p.m.
(2) Burlington Central vs. (3) Hampshire, 7 p.m.
Best regional semifinal matchup: Marmion vs. Wheaton Warrenville South in the 3A Naperville North Regional. The Cadets will see how they measure up with the big boys after advancing to the state semifinals in Class 2A last year. Marmion is coming off a high-drama, double-overtime loss to Wheaton Academy in a regular-season finale Wednesday that cost the Cadets the Suburban Christian Conference championship.
Best potential regional final: St. Charles East vs. St. Charles North in the 3A Wheaton North Regional, 11 a.m. Saturday. Top-seeded East enjoyed a much stronger regular season – including a 3-0 thumping of North earlier this month – but the North Stars have saved some of their best soccer for the postseason in recent years, and would relish the chance to upset their crosstown rivals.
Potential dark horse: Burlington Central in the 2A Burlington Central Regional. Kaneland is the top seed in the regional, but the host and second-seeded Rockets, who won the Big Northern Conference East title, have the personnel to take down a pair of rivals at the regional – Hampshire in the semis, and potentially top-seeded Kaneland in the final.
Best area bet to win a regional: Wheaton Academy in the 2A Chicago University Regional. Grant Stoneman, Gareth Flynn and the rest of the SCC champs figure to overwhelm their city foes this week en route to a potentially deep run in the 2A field.
– Jay Schwab, firstname.lastname@example.org