Vikings, Grens draw in matchup of MSL leaders
By Jonah Rosenblum
The Fremd-Elk Grove rivalry was tight at the end of 2012, with the squads going to extra time in consecutive matches.
It remained tight Saturday as the Vikings and Grenadiers fought to a 1-1 tie in a battle of first-place Mid Suburban League teams in Elk Grove Village.
For Elk Grove, which had gone 0-5-2 against Fremd the past four seasons, the result was an improvement — if not entirely satisfying.
"It feels like we're moving up now," Alberto Centeño said.
The junior goalkeeper preserved the draw with a couple of gorgeous saves in the first overtime period.
"It's about time you got a little bit of recognition," Elk Grove coach Rob Shepard said to Centeño when he heard the keeper was going to be interviewed following Saturday's game.
Two minutes into the first extra period, Fremd junior forward Zach Schoffstall took a cross from senior midfielder Nathan Dolan and headed it to the left side of the net.
"That would have been a brilliant goal if that went in," Fremd coach Steve Keller said.
Instead, Centeño gracefully dove to his right and made the impressive snare.
"First of all, I see the cross coming down, I usually say should I have gone for that first out or should I hang back on my line," Centeño said. "So, I just hang back on my line and just react to the ball, wherever it goes."
Thirty seconds later, Schoffstall forced the action once again, sending a shot off an Elk Grove hand, thus earning Fremd's second penalty kick of the afternoon.
"The more you get in that area, good things are going to happen," Keller said. "Fortunately for us, two of them got called."
But Centeño guessed perfectly on Schoffstall's line drive, dropping left to his knees and dramatically punching the ball away.
"The goalie guessed right and Zach also put it four or five feet in the air, which is the easiest spot for a goalie," Keller said. "He puts it on the ground, maybe it's in, maybe it's not because the goalie guessed correct anyway."
Dolan had a chance toward the end of the first overtime, as he embarked on a fast break. Pushed to the outside by the Grenadiers defense, he sent a cross off his defender to earn a corner kick. The ensuing corner was too low, however, to penetrate the box.
Halfway through the second overtime, senior midfielder Keigo Oharu sent a shot from the top of the penalty box just over the crossbar.
Elk Grove finally mustered a chance of its own at the buzzer — a chance to finally beat Fremd — but senior defender Kenneth Kozak's try went just over the net — and through the field goal uprights directly behind it.
The Grenadiers seemed poised o bounce back from Thursday's loss to Wheeling when after the Vikings out-shot them 9-4 in the first half, they came out with a quick first strike in the 45th minute.
Senior forward David Bahena was well wide of the net as he worked his way toward the baseline, when suddenly he whipped a short pass to senior midfielder Gio Garcia, who hammered it into the left-side netting.
"Gio's a playmaker on the team," Shepard said. "He sees the game so well and understands the space so well that when he gets a little sliver to hit it through, it seems like he's able to punch it through. Once again, he did it."
On a day when Garcia seemed a little off his game, with a few more turnovers than usual, he was still able to come up with the momentum-changing goal.
"He'll even say that wasn't his best game today," Shepard said. "When he's not on his best, he can still have dynamite moments. I thought that was definitely one of them."
So, after Fremd (5-5-4, 4-1-2, 14 points) appeared poised to score the game's first goal throughout the first half, it was Elk Grove (8-2-1, 5-1-1, 16 points) that held the lead.
The Grenadiers appeared to gain confidence from their lead, taking the first four shots of the second half. Following Garcia's goal, they twice set up Bahena with headers, but his first went right to Dylan Fisher and his second was saved as well, though not without a leap from the senior goalkeeper.
"He brings a big target," Shepard said of Bahena. "That big target in the middle always seems to give the guys a zone to put the ball through and when they can do that, then it seems like we get good opportunities."
Kozak sent a strike just left of the net to complete Elk Grove's run.
The Vikings nearly tied it on a weird play in the 59th minute, when an over-struck free kick actually led to a chance from the right sideline that glanced off the crossbar.
Finally, in the 64th minute, their persistence paid off as a scrum in the box led to an Elk Grove player falling on the ball. When he made no effort to get up, almost seeming to curl around the ball so as to keep anyone else from getting to it, the referee gave him a yellow card and ordered a penalty kick.
Dolan happily obliged with a beautiful strike into the left-side netting to knot the score at one.
"I guessed right," Centeño said. "It was just perfect side netting."
A fine defensive play from senior midfielder Austin Bratkiv, slide tackling the ball away from Kozak in the box, helped send the game to extra time.
That's when it was Centeño's time to shine.
"He's gotten knocked down a few times, but he's always gotten back up," Shepard said. "He's a junior on a senior-heavy team and there's a lot of pressure obviously to do well and every single game, he's gotten better, better, better, better."
A goalkeeper on the freshman team but an outside back prior to this year on varsity, Centeño returned to the net when another keeper was unable to participate on the team.
"Whatever they need me to play, I'll play," Centeño said.
On Saturday, he flourished.
"It was a really big boost for me," Centeño said. "I just wanted another shot."