Saints win River Division with win over rival North
By Chris Walker
St. Charles East had unfinished business to take care of, and the Saints traveled to cross-town rival St. Charles North on Saturday night to take care of it.
The business at hand? A River Division title in the Upstate Eight Conference was on the line.
Batavia, which completed its conference schedule well before the Saints and finished 5-1-0, with its lone loss, a 5-0 decision to the Saints very early in the season, held the edge heading into Saturday night. The Saints entered with a 4-0-1 mark, with the tie coming to Streamwood.
No mathematical equations were needed to determine how the Saints could win the conference. Win and they’d be crowned champs; lose or tie, and they’d be the runner-up and be mightily disappointed.
As is often the case at this point in the campaign, the victory, a 1-0 decision, didn’t come easily for the Saints. Still, they will gladly move on to Aurora next Wednesday to face Metea Valley, the Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division champs, for the outright conference championship.
“The victory was good, but we were hoping for a little more of a win,” Saints senior defender Jacob Sterling said. “Phil LeGare was winning everything in the back for them. He had a great game. I think without him in back we would’ve put away a lot more.”
Attention now turns to the Mustangs as the Saints try to remain unbeaten and bragging rights as the best of the best in the Upstate Eight.
“We’re trying to make that whole thing grow and been trying to promote that and if we can go in on Wednesday and give a good performance that will be great,” Saints coach Paul Jennison said. “It’s nice to be a division champ, but we want to be conference champions.”
Interestingly, Metea Valley lost to Batavia, 3-1 earlier on Saturday.
St. Charles East (17-0-4) had the North Stars pretty much chasing all evening. While the rain stayed away during the contest, showers from earlier in the day had made the field quite messy. While there was some slipping and sliding at times, it didn’t appear to play a major factor.
“I thought we worked really well together as a team,” Saints junior forward Zach Manibog said. “It was a good win. The field wasn’t too bad. We were standing on our feet well and still were able to use our speed to get the ball past them.”
The Saints continually put pressure on St. Charles North’s backline and keeper Billy Larsen. They ultimately took the lead with 14:08 left in the first half, on one of their many corner kicks.
Senior defender Cooper Macek was able to sneak his way through the defense and while moving full speed ahead, turn and dive to head in a shot past Larsen.
“It’s a little different feeling scoring then keeping them out,” Macek said. “Jordan (Moore) played a good ball in near the post and I saw it out there and jumped for it, dove for it, and just hoped for the best and it went in.”
His effort certainly impressed Jennison.
“I’m really happy for (Cooper),” Jennison said. “He got a knock at the beginning of the season, straining his MCL and has been playing catch-up. He had his best game in a Saints shirt and I’m so proud of him. He stepped up to put one in and defended like a champ, like his life depended on it.”
Macek was all smiles when asked, “What’s better: scoring a goal or stopping a goal?” After a pause, he gave a nice diplomatic response.
“We really pride ourselves on keeping the shutout more than anything,” he said. “I mean, goals can come any day and at any time, but if you keep them out, you’ll give yourselves the best chance to win.”
Obviously, he’s heard something like that before. He must be listening to his coach, don’t you think?
“I know it’s a cliché, but I tell the lads all the time that if you don’t ever concede you will win,” Jennison said. “We have a chance to score every time the ball is on our end of the field.”
That’s where the ball was for the majority of Saturday evening. The North Stars didn’t have a single shot on goal through the 80 minutes while the Saints were continually on the attack, earning 13 corner kicks to none for the North Stars.
“We need to be better than 1-for-13,” Macek said. “But you have to give them credit for their defense. We’d still like to convert a few more of those, but maybe they went into halftime and came out and marked us better.”
Such a defensive effort was a nice sight for North Stars coach Eric Willson whose team has been competitive all season long but has a 2-11-2 record to show for it.
“We’ve been playing with teams all year long and just one game was 4-0, the rest have been one-goal games,” Willson said. “I’m not sure if this gives us any more confidence, but we’ve got to figure out a way to put the ball in the back of the net.”
If Willson had a Top 10 list of things that annoy him most, it’s hard to believe that “poor defending,” wouldn’t be near the top of it. On Saturday, he certainly had to be pleased with how his squad defended a Saints team that is as prolific a scoring squad as any in the area.
“We’ve made a strong commitment to the way we defend in the box,” Willson said. “As good as it was tonight, the message at training is that it’s got to be for 80 minutes. We can’t give up even one, like we did. You do, and you lose the game. They’re certainly getting better but in my opinion, you have to be perfect in defending the box.”
A potential rematch with the Saints is a strong possibility in the playoffs so the fact that the Saints would still be unbeaten at that point will mean nothing in a couple weeks.
“That’s certainly the message I’m telling our guys,” Willson said. “I think the one thing we have is we have some character kids that won’t give up. They will work hard and they did it here tonight. They worked their butts off for sure.
“We’ve got a couple games left to get in the right direction before playoff time and then it’s going to have to be go-time for us.”
The North Stars also recently dropped a 1-0 decision to Streamwood, a squad that played back-to-back scoreless draws against the Saints. That means little to Willson other than the fact that it makes him think about one of the many brilliant characters Bill Murray has played in cinematic history.
“It’s certainly been Groundhog Day for us,” Willson said. “We just can’t stop working, and that’s what I keep telling our guys. Can we find a way to get the ball to the back of the net, though?
“Right now I think we’re playing better defending then we have all year long and I think a rivalry game will bring out the emotions a little bit more. I thought the defensive ability we showed tonight against a high-powered offense was pretty solid for the most part.”
Saints keeper Chris Lucatorto saw little action on Saturday, as the ball rarely got on his side of the field. He continues to fill in admirably for Mike Novotny, who was injured during the St. Charles East Invitational.
“The recovery has been slow and steady,” Jennison said of Novotny. “I think the injury was a lot worse than people thought. He got whacked pretty hard.
“But at this point, Chris (Lucatorto) is flying, no doubt. But, if we can get (Novotny) on our bench for the playoffs that will be massive for us. We don’t want any seniors missing out. Especially due to an injury.”
One junior who will miss out is forward TC Hull, who scored 31 goals last season. Hull, who was declared out for the season due to a knee injury, was cleared last Thursday but tweaked the knee days later. Whether or not he would’ve been able to suit up and compete at this level while being sidelined all season will never be known.
“In all fairness it would’ve been difficult for him to get back this quickly,” Jennison said. “It’s a shame for him but we’ll hear from him again.”
Of course, it’s difficult to avoid wondering what more this Saints team would’ve done already with another proven scored like Hull.
That might’ve been something Sterling was thinking about as he lounged around the house earlier on Saturday. With the 6 p.m. start, it wasn’t as if Sterling and other players could do much during the day with the big game looming.
“I went to the football game (Friday night) but didn’t go out afterward,” he said. “I just came home and slept. Today was awful though. All I could do was sit in my room and listen to music all day thinking about the game.”