Connolly goal lifts Cougars past Knights
By Eric Van Dril
The decisive moment in Conant's 1-0 victory over Prospect on Tuesday night came in the Mid Suburban League match's 55th minute and with a dash of uncertainty for the Cougars' Joey Connolly.
Connolly received the ball in space near the top of the box after a Prospect turnover in its defensive third.
The junior quickly dribbled toward goal and didn't hesitate pounding the ball with his left foot, sending an absolute rocket of a shot to the top corner of Prospect senior goalkeeper Jack Cooney's goal.
“We joke around because in practice it's either I have an awesome lefty shot, or it's absolutely terrible,” said Connolly, who's a right-footed player.
“On that one I was just hoping to hit goal, challenge the keeper and hope that there's either a rebound or it goes in. I kind of got lucky it went like it did. It was pretty awesome.”
Connolly, who has scored a pair of goals for the Cougars this season, said he recognized his left foot was a weakness a couple years ago.
He decided to prepare himself for a moment like the one he had on Tuesday evening, and his preparation paid off.
“I kept practicing, day-in and day-out, (on) my lefty shot, my lefty pass (and) dribbling,” the junior added. “It's improved a lot.”
Both teams struggled to test the opposing keepers with shots on frame before Connolly's strike found the back of the net.
The match was primarily a defensive battle in which the back lines of both teams snuffed out the opposition's attacks before they could put a shot on net.
Conant's defense featured junior Matt Meyers and seniors Branden Dos Santos, Nathan Marasigan and Kyle Brown; Prospect's featured seniors Jacob Schroeder and Robert Malej and juniors Alex Whiteman, Jake Cavaiani and Ian Lenke.
The midfielders for Prospect (0-5-2, 0-3-1) and Conant (4-3-1, 2-1) were both successful in creating quality opportunities in the attacking third, but both squads lacked a scoring touch in the attacking third.
The Cougars' sturdy defense, combined with the fact that Prospect was winless entering Tuesday night's match, led Connolly and his teammates to believe the Knights' morale would wane if the Cougars scored the first goal.
“We talked about it before the game that this team was 0-4-2, so if we get one, heads are going to start to sink and they're going to be like, 'Oh, here we go again. We're going to lose another one,'” Connolly said.
“So we wanted to do that in the first half – get a quick one and either kind of coast or pump a couple more in. But (scoring) was a big sense of relief for me. It brought a lot of weight off of my shoulders and it really helped the team and (our) defense. The defense did outstanding tonight.”
Conant controlled the match's momentum for about five minutes after they scored, but the Cougars couldn't add on to their lead.
Then, with about 11 minutes to go, Prospect pushed forward. Coach Kurt Trenkle altered his formation to move a player up to join forward Christian Osorio, while leaving just three players back on defense.
The run of play shifted in those final 11 minutes. Prospect became immensely dangerous, piecing attacking play together and increasing its intensity to try to find the equalizer.
“The game got more intense, but they did a good job of fighting their way back into the game,” Conant coach Jason Franco said. “They almost got one. They probably deserved it.”
Prospect's senior Zack Surico hit the post twice in the final 11 minutes of Tuesday's match. The first opportunity came with 10:36 remaining in the match, where the ball came to Surico at a tough angle inside the 18-yard box.
Surico blasted a shot to Conant senior goalkeeper Patryk Openchowski's near post and it bounced off the corner of the frame, where the post and cross bar intersect. Surico's shot landed harmlessly out of play, but it would be a sign of things to come.
Four minutes later, Prospect sustained an offensive attack once again. A blocked shot in the box came to Surico and the 5-foot-8 midfielder beat Openchowski to the far post, but his shot once again bounced off of the frame. This time, it was cleared away from danger.
Prospect maintained its intensity during the remaining minutes of the contest, but the Knights couldn't push it to overtime.
“We put three in the back and added another forward, and we seemed to get more pressure that way,” Trenkle said. “But I can't attribute that (the rise in intensity) to the formation change. I contribute that to something in their brains, that suddenly the urgency was there.
“The urgency needed to be there after they scored. We hit the post twice. We had the ball down on their end. Any one of those could have gone in, and we could have gotten something out of it. It was close, but that's been our story all year – we never play a full game.
“We know that we're going to make mistakes and we have to cover for each other. A good team will do that in a positive way, and at this point we're just not doing it.”
Prospect is still seeking its first win after playing a very difficult nonconference schedule. Trenkle said he hopes Cooney, junior Bryan Velazquez, Surico and Whiteman can help reinforce that bad starts to seasons can be overcome.
Cooney, Velazquez, Surico and Whiteman were all on last year's varsity squad, which Trenkle said started about as poorly as this year's team has begun its season. The Knights were able to rally last year, though, finishing with a 9-9-3 record and a regional title.
“We at least have that, that we can dig out,” Trenkle said. “Four of the guys on the team lived through that, and hopefully they'll use that wisdom they learned last year and understand that the way we did it last year is come together and figure out how to make it happen.”
The Knights will have two more opportunities to get the bad taste out of their mouths this week. They play at Elk Grove on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. and host Glenbrook South in their homecoming match on Friday at 4:30 p.m.
Conant will, similarly, have a busy end to its week. The Cougars will host Schaumburg on Friday at 6:30 p.m. and then travel to Neuqua Valley for an 11 a.m. match the following morning.
Tuesday night's match represented a typical game in Conant's season so far. It was low-scoring and there was a threat of the score being tied after 80 minutes, and there's a good chance the Cougars' games against Neuqua and Schaumburg follow a similar script.
Franco said his team excels in that type of match, however, and it isn't scared of overtime because of its strengths.
“It's OK if we go (to overtime),” Franco said. “We have a really good goalkeeper, and we have some guys who can break the game open a little bit. You just hope it falls to the right guy, and this one fell to Joey and he buried it.
“We were hanging on a little bit at the end because they were throwing everything forward at us; they hit the post twice, and that's one of those where you kind of survive and move onto the next game.”