Wildcats clinch UEC Valley title
By Chris Walker
Looking ahead at the upcoming Class 3A Metea Valley sectional, it’s tough to pick out who will be the favorite team to win it.
Think about it.
There’s top-seed Naperville Central, which has been state runner-up the last two seasons but it hasn’t been completely smooth sailing for the Redhawks this year, although they’ve still be very good. You can also skip all the way down to No. 17 seed, West Chicago, a team that has been competitive in every one of its matches, had to rescind four victories for having an ineligible player, and might head into the post-season winless, despite tying Benet, beating Wheaton Warrenville South, and just falling short against Waubonsie Valley and Neuqua Valley.
It’s a cliché, but it’s true, “anybody can beat anybody.”
Parity in the post-season will certainly make things interesting, but it didn’t deny Metea Valley from winning the Valley Division of the Upstate Eight Conference outright with a 2-0 victory against visiting Waubonsie Valley on Thursday night.
Regardless of what the Mustangs do in the post-season, they’re conference champions.
“I was just talking with the Batavia coach (Mark Gianfrancesco) and with Angelo DiBernardo (Waubonsie Valley coach) and we think it’s going to be wide open,” Mustangs coach Josh Robinson said of the upcoming sectional.
“Everyone has beaten each other or played each other and no one is really standing out, which makes it fun, but also is a testament to how good the soccer is. All the teams can run through it. You even have West Chicago, which lost 3-2 to Neuqua Valley yesterday and battled us hard earlier this year.
“That’s what’s the fun part of the playoffs, it gives everyone a bit of hope.”
Metea Valley (8-6-3, 5-0-1) made its fellow opponents feel quite hopeless in conference play this season, outscoring them, 16-3. The only team to give them any trouble was South Elgin, which battled to a 1-1 draw on Sept. 12.
Waubonsie Valley (6-6-2) had won three straight, all via shutout, but ran into trouble early on Thursday when a defender took down Chris Freeman. The resulting penalty kick gave the Mustangs a 1-0 lead.
“Chris got a nice counterattack to beat the defender and got a clip on him,” Robinson said. “He finished it nicely just inside the post, which was a great little goal.”
Obviously scoring first is always a huge plus in soccer, but became even bigger since the Warriors had been in shutdown mode recently with the three consecutive clean sheets.
“It’s silly to say we preach scoring first, but when we’ve done that, and when any team does that, it can dictate your pace of play,” Robinson said. “It changes the game and how they play and go about it. Since we’ve been scoring first lately that’s been a positive.”
The Warriors, though, were in attacking mode throughout the contest and were constantly putting pressure on the Mustangs back line and keepers Jimmy Wyma and Tim Howard.
In the final 20 minutes of the first half alone, the Warriors created at least ten reasonable opportunities from Noah Griffith, Marcos Gondinez, Casey Bucz and Jonathan Braun among others.
While they were able to limit the Mustangs for the most part during that timeframe, the one solid chance that the hosts had, resulted in a 2-0 lead.
It was by no means a pretty goal, but Jake Celinski took advantage of the chance from Nate Donovan with 7:01 remaining before halftime.
“Just a nice job of Celinski taking advantage of an opportunity when it was also unlucky on their goalie’s part,” Robinson said. “Sometimes that luck comes your way. We’ve had situations where the ball hasn’t bounced for us, too. Teams make mistakes and teams take advantage of those mistakes.”
Waubonsie Valley didn’t go long periods without making the Mustangs work defensively and the Warriors had far more chances than the hosts in the second half, but continually we’re denied by both tough defense and an inability to step up in the box.
“I think we created more opportunities, but we lack that hunger inside the box,” DiBernardo said. “We had three or four crosses and two real good ones in the second half but nobody in the box was there to connect and you’ve got to be hungry to do that.”
Senior defenders Grant Bolle and Brandon Espino, and up-and-coming sophomore Brandon Howard, also made it difficult for the Warriors to execute.
“We just try to talk as much as possible and communicate with our outside mids to pinch in when attacking and to get outside when they’re getting up,” Bolle said. “This year has been hard because we’ve had a lot of guys trying to get used to each other and to be more organized. We’re getting closer and closer. This was our third shutout in a row, so we’re picking things up and doing good things.”
Wyma had six saves, having played the entire first half and final 19:05 of the second half. Tim Howard started in net in the second half but was injured and had his arm in a sling after the contest.
“We’re hoping it’s nothing too serious and just that he dove on it badly,” Robinson said. “The nice thing is we have three goalies and they’ve all been fantastic, and the guys in back are getting some cohesion between them and that takes time, but we’re starting to see it.”
Bucz appeared to have cut the deficit in half and ended the shutout with 14:50 remaining but his shot just rose too high, clanking off the cross bar and back to where a defender was able to boot it out of harm’s way.
It was just that kind of night for the Warriors.
“That’s not the result we were looking for,” DiBernardo said. “We created our chances and I thought it was pretty even, but they took advantage of the two chances that they had, basically.”
Metea Valley will host either St. Charles East or Batavia, the winner of the River Division of the UEC, in the conference crossover title game, next Wednesday at 6 p.m.