ST. CHARLES – St. Charles East boys soccer coach Paul Jennison thought last week’s loss to Metea Valley – the Saints’ first defeat of the season – might end up fueling the Saints for the postseason.
East’s approach in practice the next day affirmed Jennison’s notion, and Wednesday’s performance in a 2-0 win against St. Charles North in an IHSA Class 3A St. Charles East Regional semifinal offered tangible evidence.
“That loss was the best thing that’s ever happened to this group of guys, to see the way that they’ve responded,” Jennison said. “They were out at the practice field the second the bell went after school. I mean, they didn’t want to go home. They were out there for 2½ hours the following day, and they didn’t want to leave.”
On Wednesday, the top-seeded Saints (18-1-4) found themselves in a tight matchup with the North Stars (3-12-3) – much like a 1-0, regular-season win for East over North – only this time with postseason tension in the chilly air.
The teams were scoreless at halftime before Saints junior Zach Manibog’s mid-range, one-time blast eluded North senior goalkeeper Billy Larsen. The goal came with 33:40 to play in the second half.
“(Jake) Sterling tried to kick it in, and it just popped out,” Manibog said. “I just took my opportunity, and took a strike at it. … I think it was a good angle, that’s why I tried to do a first touch.”
East added a Jordan Moore insurance goal with just more than a minute to play in the match, but not before North – kept afloat by Larsen’s strong play in net – flirted with tying the match.
Off a free kick with about 15 minutes to go, a slick passing sequence put the ball on the foot of Matt Picinich, but the senior’s shot sailed wide.
About six minutes later, East goalkeeper Chris Lucatorto made the save of the night when North junior forward Chris Watson raced in with a clear look at the goal, and blasted a shot that Lucatorto deflected with one hand over the crossbar.
“We thought his pace up front could give them some problems, and that held true,” North coach Eric Willson said of Watson. “He got in behind them and got a pretty good look.”
Added Jennison: “[Lucatorto] makes that save, he keeps us in the game at 1-nil, we’re looking nice. They score that, who knows? But we won’t deal in ifs. Chris’s job was to keep the ball out of the back of the net. He’s been fantastic, and so has Mike (Novotny) this year. I don’t ever go to sleep worrying about our goalkeepers.”
Novotny, an Eastern Illinois recruit, has been out since a ligament tear in his ankle last month from a collision with Marmion’s Flynn Collins, who suffered a season-ending injury on the play. Jennison said Novotny has returned to practice recently and could push Lucatorto for playing time in Friday’s regional final against Rolling Meadows or in sectionals next week, if the Saints advance.
North, meanwhile, closes a rocky season. The North Stars’ three wins are the fewest in Willson’s nine years at the program’s helm.
“With a team that has the record that we do, it’s easy to go the other direction and shut it down,” Willson said. “I’m proud of these guys that they didn’t do that. They fought real hard, and that’s important.”
Jennison said starting the postseason as a heavy favorite against a crosstown rival is a difficult way to open the playoffs. Predictably, North gave East an inspired effort.
That’s why Jennison isn’t sweating the narrow margin of victory as the Saints begin a postseason push the team hopes goes even further than last year, when East advanced to a 3A supersectional.
“I really feel as though we’ve earned the right to have practice tomorrow,” Jennison said. “And now the guys that haven’t been involved [in the postseason] last year especially, they already know a little bit about what it’s about, so it’s a good learning curve.”