AURORA – Players on the Neuqua Valley bench huddled under blankets during Tuesday night's match against St. Charles North, contested under freezing conditions.
North's reserves kept to their program ritual of standing throughout the match, blankets nowhere to be found.
Whether the show of solidarity factored in to North's 1-0 victory can't be substantiated, but the North Stars showed great mental toughness throughout in picking up their first win of the season.
"The tradition was started I think 14 years ago, and they pretty much stand the whole time and cheer everybody on," North coach Ruth Vostal said of her bench. "Which, today, was exciting because I think we could use that motivation for the girls that were out there."
The temperature hovered in the 20s throughout the match – not factoring in wind chill – on a day when almost every other outdoor sporting event was canceled. But North (1-1) and Neuqua (0-2) were not deterred, playing the match on Metea Valley's turf field.
North junior midfielder/forward Lauren Macchia likely spoke for everyone on the field and in the stands in saying she felt numb as the night wore on.
"We're all about the mental toughness and just finishing for each other," Macchia said. "We had to battle through it. We're out here suffering through the same thing so we had to put in the work, and finish it for each other."
Macchia notched her first varsity goal midway through the second half in what turned out to be the night's lone score. With Neuqua goalkeeper Hannah Parrish out of position after coming out to challenge an initial shot, Macchia poked the ball in with 20:02 to play.
"We have to clean that up," Neuqua coach Joe Moreau said. "We can't make a save and give up a rebound and then not clear it out."
In her first season on varsity, Macchia said she's enthused simply to be part of North's tradition-rich program.
"I was really excited to be part of a team like with, with the previous years of hard work and dedication that these girls put into it," Macchia said. "It was just exciting to be a part of it and to help get a win for my team tonight."
Less than four minutes before Macchia scored, Neuqua (0-2) just missed taking a lead as North Stars goalkeeper Shelby Stitz fought off Katie Ciesiulka's blast, deflecting it off the crossbar and out of play to lead to a fruitless Wildcats corner kick.
"I've seen her make two great saves already this season so I think great things are expected," Vostal said of Stitz.
Players jumped up and down during stoppages in play in desperate attempts to maintain feeling, while members of the sparse crowd did their best to stay engaged in the match despite the biting cold.
Yet players somehow retained their resolve, and North's defense showed major improvement from the team's season opener, a 3-2 loss to Conant. Senior defender Kathleen Murphy notched a key clearance to avert trouble as Neuqua looked to tie the score with about 17 minutes to play.
"The elements are what they are, and we have we to overcome that," Vostal said. "We work a lot in practices in making situations difficult for us physically and mentally."
Vostal – who played collegiately at Michigan – was asked to recall the last match she was part of as cold as Tuesday's. The question brought to mind memories of her career as a standout at St. Charles High.
"When I was a player, we were playing at St. Charles, and we were playing Naperville North," Vostal recalled. "It was a good game, but there were pictures of us with the snow going sideways."
There was no snow Tuesday night, but players probably won't need a photograph to remember the cold.