Kelli Santo Paulo and Sophie Jendrzeczyk might not be along for the ride with the St. Charles East girls soccer team this spring if their club program, Eclipse, had advanced as far as it did the year before.
Blessing in disguise?
"I think it is because now we're going to state," Santo Paulo said. "It's so worth it. And I love playing with this team. I love all the girls on it."
Santo Paulo and Jendrzeczyk are among four Saints starters who returned to high school soccer this spring after taking hiatuses to focus on club play, with fellow junior Mallory Mollenhauer and senior Rion Gaffney being the others. That quartet played a significant role in elevating the Saints (18-4-5) to today's IHSA Class 3A state semifinal matchup against Lincoln-Way North at North Central College in Naperville.
All four had played high school soccer at East as freshmen before stepping away. East coach Paul Jennison knew their returns meant an influx of talent but was impressed by how well they meshed with a Saints core that includes returning stalwarts such as Amanda Hilton, Anna Corirossi, Shannon Rasmussen, Darcy Cunningham and Kendra Sheehan from last year's 14-6-2 team.
"From day one, everyone was in tune," Jennison said. "Coming back in when they've played club the year before, you're hoping it was going to be a smooth transition, and it was. They've been amazing, and to bring four players of that quality back into the fold, I mean, you only have to look at the season we've had.
"But also the fact that the other girls around them have understood roles … no egos, no superstars. They've just gone in there and worked for each other."
Mollenhauer was called up to varsity late in her freshman season before devoting her sophomore year to club play with Team Chicago. A Wisconsin-Milwaukee recruit, Mollenhauer's decision to return helped fortify an East defense that entered the season light on experience but has excelled.
"Now I'm committed [for college] and I'm so much happier that I'm here," Mollenhauer said. "I'm so glad to be part of the Saints soccer team. We are doing amazing things this year, and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
Santo Paulo has chipped in five goals and five assists while lending depth to the Saints' midfield, arguably the team's chief strongsuit. She assisted on East's second goal Tuesday as the Saints beat Huntley, 2-0, in the Lake Park Supersectional.
Santo Paulo acknowledged mixed feelings about missing out on her sophomore year with her East teammates.
"Seeing them all in the hallways, I just missed them so much," Santo Paulo said. "Because I played freshman year, so it was really sad seeing them and me not being there. But now I'm back, so I'm happy."
Jendrzeczyk, a forward, has emerged as East's third-leading goal scorer as her nine goals trail only Hilton (16) and Cunningham (15).
She said returning to high school soccer offers a more comfortable dynamic than when she played club year-round.
"My club team, we play really, really aggressively," Jendrzeczyk said. "This team is nice. We get along really well, playing the ball to each other. It's easier to play with this team because we just have more chemistry, I guess."
Gaffney (eight goals, two assists) also has developed into a valuable scoring option for the Saints. An Elmhurst College recruit, Gaffney played high school soccer as a freshman, was injured as a sophomore and focused on club play with Oak Brook Soccer Club as a junior.
Regardless of backgrounds, Jennison figures he'll need all of the Saints to be at their best if they're going to get past Lincoln-Way North (22-3-1) and earn a spot in Saturday night's championship match.
"We're under no illusions," Jennison said. "This is going to be without doubt the toughest team we've faced all season."