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St. Charles East soccer lives up to program pedigree

St. Charles East’s Claire Rasmussen (left) and Huntley’s Jenna Hermansen battle for control of the ball during the first half of Tuesday’s Class 3A Lake Park Supersectional in Roselle. East defeated Huntley, 2-0.
St. Charles East’s Claire Rasmussen (left) and Huntley’s Jenna Hermansen battle for control of the ball during the first half of Tuesday’s Class 3A Lake Park Supersectional in Roselle. East defeated Huntley, 2-0.

ROSELLE – It doesn't take a history buff to know Fighting Saints soccer is drenched in tradition.

England native Paul Jennison – who coaches East's girls and boys programs – was far removed from Norris Stadium as the Saints' girls program ruled the state shortly before St. Charles High split, winning five successive state championships under former coach Joe Moreau between 1996-2000.

Consider those echoes officially awakened after the Saints plowed past Huntley, 2-0, in Tuesday's IHSA Class 3A Lake Park Supersectional. The Saints are headed for the state semifinals for the first time as St. Charles East; they'll play Lincoln-Way North at 5 p.m. Friday at North Central College in Naperville.

"You can't help but know, working in this school, how this program used to be," Jennison said. "It was an extreme honor for me when I got the opportunity to take both [the boys and girls programs], and there was no doubt in my mind that my goal was to get the program back to where it was.

"I'm not saying that just by getting to the final four that we're there but I think we're on the right track. It also helps that this group of girls is as hard-working, motivated, selfless and driven as they are because you can't do it alone."

East (18-4-5) and Huntley (19-7) were scoreless at halftime despite the Saints mostly controlling possession.

Senior Rion Gaffney gave East the lead, 1-0, with 28:08 to play in the second half, and from there, the odds swung mightily in the Saints' favor. All 19 of Huntley's wins this season came via shutouts.

"We heard that all their wins were unscored on," East junior defender Mallory Mollenhauer said. "We knew that the second we would get a goal that we would win this game. That's what we tried to do. The first half, I think we had a lot of nerves, but the second half we came in there and we knew that we needed to get a goal, and the second that we did, we could control the game, and that's what we did."

Huntley goalkeeper Jessica Galason made a stop before Gaffney closed in moments later for a second opportunity. 

"Amanda (Hilton) had the initial shot, and then I think it bounced off the keeper or Sophie (Jendrzeczyk), I don't know who," Gaffney said. "I slotted it upper-left, and it was a beautiful strike. … We felt it coming. We worked our hardest to get that goal."

Jennison delivered an impassioned speech to the Saints as the match stood scoreless at halftime, imploring them to show just the persistence that allowed Gaffney to successfully cap East's frenetic push in the box.

"We talk about moments that you get to show what you can do, moments that you get to really just prove you have the heart and desire to be successful," Jennison said. "When that ball is scrambling around there in a supersectional game, somebody's got to throw themselves on the end of it. Rion was the first one to do that. That can be the different between a career being over and continuing."

East midfielder Kelli Santo Paulo hit the crossbar less than two minutes after East went ahead but her frustration didn't linger long.

Santo Paulo's picturesque cross set up junior forward Darcy Cunningham for a header score that made it 2-0 Saints with 13:10 to play, allowing East goalkeeper Kendra Sheehan (four saves) and the Saints' defense to relax a smidge. 

Huntley coach Kris Grander cited East's midfield dominance as the biggest difference between the teams, saying the Red Raiders changed formations as a concession to the play of Saints midfielders such as Hilton, Santo Paulo and Anna Corirosi.

"Their defense is good but their defense comes from the midfield," Grabner said. "That [Hilton], man, she's a special player, and she's surrounded by good players. That was tough."

East was solid throughout the season but the Saints seem to have found another gear come the postseason.

While Lincoln-Way North – the Saints' state semifinal opponent Friday – needed a late, tying goal en route to a penalty kick victory against Lyons on Tuesday, the Saints have not required overtime in any of their five postseason triumphs.

"All these postseason games, we've been just dominating," Jendrzeczyk said. "There's no stopping us now."

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