Sara Buetow considers herself a full-service center-back, and that includes conceding nothing in the air.
Despite standing only 5-foot-1, the junior has emerged as a crucial cog for a St. Charles East back line that shined again Friday as the Saints shut out host Conant, 1-0, for a sectional championship. Buetow and the Saints will turn their attention to Huntley in tonight's IHSA Class 3A Lake Park Supersectional.
"I just go up with confidence," Buetow said. "I know I can win the ball so I make sure I do it. I know I'm relying on my team, and they're relying on me."
Defense was the obvious question for the Saints entering the season as East returned little experience along the back line. But Buetow, Sonia Ost, Mallory Mollenhauer and converted midfielder/forward Shannon Rasmussen have meshed into one of the Saints' greatest strongsuits.
Buetow might be most unlikely success story, if only because of a height disadvantage that she's rendered mostly inconsequential with her assertive, confident play.
"She plays like she's 6-feet tall," East midfielder Amanda Hilton said. "She wins every, single ball out of the air, and we trust her so much. I think that's huge for our team. She's not scared. She will go in there no matter who she's playing against, no matter what the girl's size is. That's something a center-back needs, and she has it."
Buetow split time between the midfield and center-back when she played for East's junior varsity as a sophomore. East coach Paul Jennison didn't hesitate to slot Buetow at center-back upon her varsity debut.
"In the beginning of the season there was no doubt in my mind she was going to be a starting center-back for us," Jennison said. "She's physical, she wins the ball and she proves that height doesn't matter.
"If you're going to go win the ball, you're going to play on anyone's team. She's got the heart of a lion out there."
Buetow acknowledged being "pretty quiet" for a chunk of the season but said she's "coming out of my shell more" as she gains experience.
Buetow considers her ability to anticipate what's unfolding around her to be the most valuable component of her skill set.
"Probably just seeing the game," Buetow said. "Like on that one one ball [against Conant] where she was dribbling toward me and I sort of could predict where she was going. And trying to [play] it to feet."
The fourth-seeded Saints pulled a pair of seeding upsets to advance to today's supersectional, ousting top-seeded St. Charles North and second-seeded Conant last week.
Huntley (19-6), meanwhile, is coming off a penalty-kick shootout win against Machesney Park Harlem in Friday's Rockford Auburn Sectional championship match. The teams were scoreless through regulation and two overtime periods.
East and Huntley have not met this season.
"We can do it, I really think so," Hilton said. "We just need to go out there and play like we did [Friday]. I thought we played unbelievable again. If we can do what we did [Friday], we're on our way to state, and that was our goal since the beginning of the season. We really believed we could do it so we're going to make our name."
The winner will play in a state semifinal at 5 p.m. Friday at North Central College in Naperville.
"We know we've got to bring our best game," Jennison said. "I don't think there's a favorite. It's going to be a case of going in there 50/50, bringing the best game you've got and hoping you can come out on top."