HOFFMAN ESTATES – A late response from the Geneva girls soccer team wasn't enough for the Vikings, not on a night when few of the breaks seemed to go their way.
Geneva dropped Wednesday's IHSA Class 3A Conant Sectional semifinal, 3-1, after a sluggish start forced the Vikings into catch-up mode throughout the second half.
"To be a solid team in the playoffs you've got to be a first-half team, and we just weren't that today," Geneva coach Megan Owens said. "We just waited. I think the nerves got to us a little bit and we just struggled a little bit mentally. Once we were down, 2-0, man, we showed up to play, but it was too late."
Conant (15-4-2), the sectional's No. 2 seed, advances to Friday's 4 p.m. sectional final against fourth-seeded St. Charles East.
Marquette-bound Conant junior Leah Celarek scored two of the Cougars' three goals. She notched the lone goal of the first half and then gave the Cougars a late cushion after Geneva senior Michaela Loebel drew the Vikings within 2-1 with 21:21 to play in the second half.
"She had some moments in the middle of the year where she either got marked out of games or she just kind of had tired legs, but the last three or four games, she's started to show why Marquette wants her," Conant coach Jason Franco said of Celarek. "Dangerous every time she gets the ball, scoring goals, slipping people through. Obviously the third goal was huge in terms of stopping whatever momentum they had, or at least slowing."
After Conant moved ahead, 2-0, on Zoe Shoro's poked-in rebound with 27:25 to play in the second half, the Vikings played their sharpest stretch of the match.
Loebel had a pair of breakaway opportunities a few minutes apart, the first of which she clanked off the crossbar before cashing in the second off Taylor Williams' assist.
"I felt their sweeper coming on me, and my mind was on her during my shot," Loebel said of the first breakaway. "I knew when I shot it I wasn't really focusing on the goal. I was focusing on get it off my feet. I wasn't in the right mindset.
"And then the second one, I wasn't thinking. It was just kind of a reflex."
While Geneva (15-6-2) caught a tough break when Loebel's first attempt caromed off, Conant's third goal – with only 4:23 left to play – came after Celarek's shot ricocheted off the crossbar and dropped down, apparently crossing the goal line in the process.
But Owens recognized that misfortune only was partially responsible for the way the match unfolded.
"They outplayed us," Owens said. "We just didn't mark well. It's not like their goals were amazing and they had 1,000 chances. We just couldn't put the pieces together to have a complete game.
"They're a nice team but I think we matched up fairly well. We just didn't play our best game unfortunately, and that happens."
The match originally was scheduled for Tuesday night but was pushed back a day since the St. Charles East-St. Charles North semifinal dragged late into the evening because of a lightning delay.
Loebel, a Nebraska recruit, is among five, four-year varsity players on a Geneva team that will lose 11 seniors. Owens credited the deep senior class for helping the program "soar," and Loebel is proud of the way the Vikings senior led the team.
"No drama, no negativity – we were all such a close-knit group, and not just the seniors, but everyone," Loebel said. "You'd think for the underclassmen it'd be difficult for them to fit in but we were all just so welcoming. This was the closest team I've been with all four years."