Mustangs fall to Bulldogs with WV title on line
By Curt Herron
Batavia headed into Saturday's final match of the Waubonsie Valley Tournament with a rather simple, yet challenging assignment.
The opportunity was there for it to edge out three other squads for the championship, if two things happened, which wouldn't be easy.
First and foremost, the Bulldogs had to knock off a Metea Valley squad that's been hot and just two days earlier wrapped up its first conference title.
Secondly, coach Mark Gianfrancesco's squad would not only need to defeat the Mustangs, but do so by at least two goals, in order to win the tiebreaker.
The Bulldogs struck for a first-half goal and seemed to be on their way to their goal after striking again shortly after the break.
With just under a quarter hour left, Metea threw a monkey wrench into the plans by getting a goal back, setting the table for it to win the title.
But to Batavia's credit, it answered the Mustangs threat just 75 seconds later and went on to capture a 3-1 victory on a rainy afternoon in Aurora.
Beside claiming the invite hardware, the Bulldogs (13-3-2) have lost only once in their last 15 outings as they approach the playoffs on a high note.
That loss came on Tuesday when Batavia fell 1-0 to the hosts. That defeat is the lone blemish on an impressive 12-1-2 run since its 1-2 season start.
The Bulldogs' hopes of seeing Metea in Wednesday's Upstate Eight Conference title match were dashed when St. Charles East won 1-0 Saturday evening.
"I think that this just gives us another confidence boost," Gianfrancesco said. "It shows that we're moving in the right direction and that we're playing well together.
"We were playing smart, knocking the ball around and that was creating a lot of opportunities, and that was great to see. I thought that we were more focused today than we were on Thursday.
"On a day like this where it wasn't very good, but we did a nice job of knocking the ball around the feet. The boys did a nice job of keeping their shape which created channels for some easy passes and they moved off the ball very well."
The Bulldogs have two more matches remaining in the regular season before it returns to the same field to compete in the regional tournament.
Batavia is the third-seed, but it just lost to the sixth-seeded Warriors. Plainfield South is its first opponent and West Aurora also threatens.
But aside from the defeat to Waubonsie earlier in the week, the veteran Bulldogs coach is pleased with his squad's play as the postseason nears.
"I like our focus," Gianfrancesco said. "We came out today with a good warmup and we were tight in the back and were making some good transitions out," Gianfrancesco said.
"Also, the good sequences that we've had to put us in a good position to create opportunities to score, and then finishing when you get the chance. That's all that we can ask for.
This season's success has understandably been enjoyable to the 10 players on the squad who were on a 3-14-3 team that closed 1-9-3 one year ago.
Many of those are seniors and they contributed to the cause to help the Bulldogs finally win this title after some close calls in recent years.
Nick Foster stopped all but one shot that came his way, David Curnock gave his team a 2-0 lead and Chase Correll got the assist on the third goal.
Junior Kevin Collins, who was also on last year's squad, collected the third goal and handed out an assist to Nick Konopacki on the initial score.
"It's great to get a win against good competition before the playoffs," Foster said. "It's nice to come back from our loss to Waubonsie to beat Metea. This is the first time that we've ever won this tournament, which is awesome.
"Everyone played great today. We all play with a lot of heart and we play as a team really well and everyone plays for each other. Some of the seniors have been friends since elementary school so it's great that we get to do this together.
"We just have to keep working hard together and playing with heart. If we go down, we bounce back, and we have to keep doing that. We never give up on each other."
Metea (8-7-3), which had won three straight and four of five, including 2-0 wins over Lemont and Waubonsie, controlled its fate before the match.
After the hosts beat Oswego 3-1 to give both squads 2-1 marks, the Mustangs needed to either win, draw or lose by one goal to capture the title.
Despite falling behind 2-0 in the 47th minute, Josh Robinson's team kept attacking and the efforts paid off with just under 15 minutes remaining.
Chris Freeman sent a perfect ball into the box on a corner kick and Grant Bolle charged in and headed the ball in to briefly give Metea some hope.
But the Bulldogs quickly answered with a header of their own as Correll's long pass found Collins, who connected to reestablish the two-goal lead.
And they made sure that this time that advantage would hold since the only other threat in the late going was theirs, a corner kick by Ian Larson.
"We've come a long ways since last year," Curnock said. "As you saw today, this game showed heart and we worked for it. We knew that we had to come out hard today and Metea may not have known what to expect from us, but we showed them.
"Our team chemistry is great since we're like brothers out there. That's one of the most important things for a team and we all work well together. We just have to have mental toughness and go into games knowing that anyone can stop us and just go in with more heart.
"We've already had such a huge turnaround from last year. We've been successful so far and I'm looking forward to what we can do in the future."
Metea hopes to bounce back when it meets the unbeaten Saints on Wednesday in the UEC championship match, which it will host.
St. Charles East ended Batavia's hopes of playing for the title when it edged rival St. Charles North 1-0 on Saturday evening.
Then the Mustangs host their own regional where they'll meet Marmion Academy with top-seed Naperville Central also competing.
As for the start of Saturday's match, there weren't many early chances as the sides struggled to connect before the rains came.
Jake Celinski was denied on a close try by Foster and a corner kick by Larson was punched away by Jimmy Wyma before the half's midpoint.
Shortly after Larson saw another corner kick deflected, the Bulldogs connected in the 36th minute to move in front for good.
A corner kick by Collins found Konopacki, who headed the ball into the net to give Batavia the early advantage in the contest.
The Bulldogs tried to add to their lead before the break but attempts by both Larson and John Barnes were both cleared away.
Not long after a Collins corner was punched away early in the final half, Jimmy Kisiel sent a liner over the net for Metea.
Then in the 47th minute, Batavia grabbed a 2-0 lead when Larson sent a pass to Curnock, who fired in an attempt for a score.
Just before the final half's midway mark, Larson had a try cleared by Hubert Celinski and a Konopacki header was thwarted.
The Mustangs responded to those challenges with increased pressure but Freeman was high and then wide on a pair of attempts.
That set the table for the drama that would eventually decide the title in which the sides exchanged goals in short order.