HOFFMAN ESTATES – The St. Charles East girls soccer team dominated possession and scoring chances. Less impressively but more importantly, the Saints eked it out on the scoreboard.
East's 1-0 victory against host Conant in Friday's IHSA Class 3A Conant Sectional Championship match played much more lopsided than the score indicates as the Saints delivered a performance worthy of a sectional championship.
"There's something special about this team, I really feel it," East senior midfielder Amanda Hilton said. "We just work so well together. Every single girls plays with each other, and we leave it all out there."
East (17-4-2) advances to Tuesday's Lake Park Supersectional against Huntley, which prevailed Friday in a penalty kick shootout against Machesney Park Harlem.
Friday was Conant's prom but it was the Saints who maneuvered gracefully throughout the match, putting stready pressure on Conant's back line and Cougars goalkeeper Haley Anderson, who made 10 saves and exhaled deeply after Hilton hit a crossbar and later a post.
Fortunately for East, in between, Hilton also hit paydirt. Left unattended for a few costly moments in the middle of the field, the Nebraska recruit let one rip from about 30 yards out and scored the match's lone goal with 25:04 to play in the first half.
"I hit the crossbar earlier so I knew I had the range tonight," Hilton said. "So I took my chance. No one was on me, I hit one, and luckily it went in. It was an amazing feeling."
Although second-seeded Conant (15-5-2) remained within striking distance throughout, fourth-seeded East was every bit as dominant as when the Saints pounded the Cougars, 3-0, on May 2.
"I told their coach, that was an inspiring effort by you guys," Conant coach Jason Franco said. "I've seen them play now three times, and I hadn't seen that kind of effort and energy and relentless play out of them. It was kind of what I expected to see more out of them on Tuesday [against St. Charles North], and they brought that for the entire game, on a hot day like this and with all this on the line.
"I tried to tell my girls, I know they're emotional, but be proud of the fact that you just ran into a buzz-saw kind of performance out of a team that could do some real damage I think in the tournament if they can play that way."
Hilton enjoyed an especially sizzling match, uncorking her shot off the crossbar after acrobatically twisting out of traffic just a few minutes before scoring her goal.
Less than a minute after Hilton scored, East flirted with scoring another as junior Sophie Jendrzeczyk was stopped from point-blank range in what might have been Anderson's best save of the match.
The sectional championship is the Saints' first since 2007, narrowly predating coach Paul Jennison taking over the program.
"I would have liked to put one or two more away, I must admit," Jennison said. "I thought we had the lion's share of the possession. We didn't really give up too many chances in the back. But you know, at this time of year, 1-nil, nobody's greedy. We'll take it."
Jennison called starting defenders Shannon Rasmussen, Sonia Ost, Sara Buetow and Mallory Mollenhauer "rock stars" for helping keep goalkeeper Kendra Sheehan's five saves relatively routine.
The Saints are starting to daydream in earnest about a potential trip to the state's final four next weekend in Naperville.
"We haven't [advanced this far] in so long that now we really, really want to do it, try hard to score and everything," Buetow said. "We want to do it. We want to win state."