Grens' fine season comes to a sectional halt
By Gary Larsen
Elk Grove started fast from the gate this season before negotiating some difficult times and then rising to the occasion in the postseason.
But while the Grens pushed Lake Park to the limit on Wednesday, the Lancers were up to the challenge.
Lake Park’s 2-0 win over Elk Grove came in a 3A sectional semifinal game that was physical from start to finish, but Lake Park has had no problem this year playing hard, physical soccer.
"I tell the kids all the time that the team that plays more physical seems to capitalize on a mistake,” Lake Park coach Tony Passi said. “Or it allows you to use your speed, use your strength, isolate a guy one-vee-one. When you work hard like that, good things happen."
Elk Grove went into Wednesday’s game with a plan, and the Grens nearly worked that plan to perfection, man-marking Lake Park midfielder Mike Catalano and showing fight all over the pitch.
But a flick inside the far post by Riker Tithof-Steere early in the second half, and then a hustle goal from Oliver Horgan were the difference in the match.
"They came out in two days, we had a scheme, and they executed it perfectly," Elk Grove coach Rob Shepard said of his boys. "What a great group of guys I have here. I told them I don't anything bad to say because they did everything right, the way that we wanted, and that's all I can ask."
Wednesday’s first half saw Lake Park (19-2-3) command the ball through the game’s first 20 minutes, with Joe Keane and Catalano blistering a shot apiece from distance in on Elk Grove keeper Alberto Centeno. Centeno made both stops, with a slick ball due to a steady rain slipping away from him, but both times the junior keeper was able to pounce on the rebound.
Horgan blasted a ball just over the crossbar from 25 yards out at the 14-minute mark, before Elk Grove (11-6-2) managed its first legitimate shot on goal at 19 minutes when Lancers keeper Steven Mack secured a Gio Garcia freekick taken from 25 yards out.
The Lancers cleared out a long serve sent by Avery Chang at 25 minutes, and Centeno picked a Gustavo Contreras freekick out of the air at the post, with Kean and Catalano lurking. Mack cleanly fielded a hard-hit one-hopper taken by the Grens’ Ivan Corona, and an attempted blast by the Grens’ Jonny Arzeta was blocked by a Lancers’ defender.
Elk Grove was most dangerous in the first half on a pair of corner kicks at 35 and 36 minutes. The Lancers’ Kevin Coria headed away the first corner and Mack punched away the second, before Contreras cleared it out.
Catalano whipped a head shot just off frame at 41 minutes and two minutes later the scoreless tie was broken when Keane found Tithof-Steere with a long throw from the right side. Tithof-Steere flicked it into goal from six yards out.
"We knew how we wanted to defend set pieces and we knew if we put two guys on (Catalano) it's going to free up someone else," Shepard said. "We had to win those one-vee-one battles but they were able to get through that one time. On the second goal we're in attacking formation trying to get a (tying) goal, and we're going to give up that one. But that first goal was just one opportunity where we lost a one-vee-one battle."
The Grens nearly tied the game at 52 minutes when the Lancers cleared a Manny Pillado freekick out to Arnold Aguilar, who hit a missile from 40 yards out that hammered the crossbar. Centeno made the highlight save of the game at 55 minutes, leaping after a Horgan shot taken at from point-blank range and tipping it over the crossbar.
Aguilar ran down a Garcia through-ball to the endline on the right side at 58 minutes, serving it across the goalmouth and past the back post, for what ultimately turned out to be the Grens’ final truly dangerous flirtation with a goal.
Horgan’s insurance goal came at 73 minutes when he won a ball at the touchline on the right side, took a touch around a second defender, and went in on Centeno, poking it past him at the near post.
After a swarm of Lake Park fans and players sang Happy Birthday to Passi in the parking lot, the veteran coach accounted for what got his team through a tough challenge from Elk Grove.
"There's a team element, a chemistry, and these kids want it. This is one of the best groups I've ever coached," Passi said. "There's no nonsense. You know they're going to take care of business on the field and off the field, and the chemistry is there.
"By taking (Catalano) out of the game they kind of took away some of our midfield play, and made it harder for us to connect with Oliver but we just never let up. We kept fighting, and our backline was a wall tonight.”
Defenders Contreras, Tithof-Steere, Carlos Torres, and Anthony Deveruex helped Mack to the team’s 13th shutout of the season. The win sends the Lancers – seeded No. 2 at this year’s Schaumburg sectional – into a sectional title game on Saturday against No. 1 St. Charles East (20-1-4).
The Saints beat the Lancers 5-1 on Sept. 10.
"We're going to have to step it up in that game. Our midfield needs to connect a lot more," Coria said. "They play wide a lot, they're really quick, so our wingers need to step it up with their speed and their strength.
"But this feels amazing. This is the furthest I've gone. We lost in the first game of regionals last season but we stepped it up this year and we've done the best with what we've got."
Shepard will bid farewell to a team that gave Elk Grove its second regional title in school history in boys’ soccer, matching the feat accomplished by the 2010 team under former coach Joe Bush.
Key contributing seniors Garcia, Pillado, Arzeta, Aguilar, Avery Chang, and David Bahena will all depart the program, along with Hugo Sanchez, Sergio Aguirre, Deion Morales, Jersson Pachar, and Kenneth Kozak.
Arzeta and Garcia were coaches’ all-sectional and all-Mid Suburban League players this season, and Pillado also made the all-MSL team.