Trojans fall to Huskies in WSC Silver finale
By Dave Owen
Noah Fluharty has been a tireless blue collar battler for Oak Park and River Forest, flying into a crowd of players in the box or taking on opponents for 50/50 balls with high energy and no fear.
Tuesday in the Huskies’ West Suburban Conference Silver finale against Downers Grove North, Fluharty’s season of maximum effort paid off with ultimate reward in the scoring column.
The junior midfielder netted his first career hat trick, including two goals in the first 15 minutes of the match, as OPRF earned a 3-1 win over the Trojans in oak Park.
“I get taken out a lot because I run so hard,” Fluharty said, “but it’s definitely worth it if I get hat tricks now and then.”
Typical of his unselfish play, Fluharty (who now has six goals this season) took little credit for his big night.
“The only real goal I had was the header (to put the Huskies up 2-0),” Fluharty said, “and that was a really nice delivery by my teammate (Tim Huettel) so a good assist, too.
“I was fortunate to have good pressure by my teammates on the other goals.”
Harry Engoren was the instigator for the Huskies’ first score, as his nice cross from the wing set up Fluharty’s putaway from in front of the net for a 1-0 lead in the opening minutes.
“Coach told us to play the ball wide,” Engoren said. “Noah scored the three goals and he was getting wide, and Evan Kindler and I were getting wide. We were crossing it in and putting pressure on the box, and we just put shots in.”
Fluharty put the Huskies (9-5-4, 3-3) up 2-0 with the aforementioned header, which came off a free kick by Huettel.
“We came out flying,” OPRF coach Paul Wright said. “We really talked about taking opportunities on the counterattack to get down the field and create opportunities.”
The waves of pressure caught Downers North (3-14-3, 1-5) on its heels early on, before the Trojans regrouped to play a strong second half.
“It’s just not being mentally ready off the bus,” Downers North coach Brian Gervase said. “It’s been a challenge for us all year matching intensity right from the beginning.
“The first half wasn’t much to look at because I really don’t think that was us playing, especially the first quarter of the game.
“We have to be efficient, and if we’re not we don’t have the size or speed or the horses to play with teams when we’re not playing our best.”
The Huskies’ offense remained at their best for much of the half, continuing to generate threats – one of which paid off again for Fluharty.
Off another Engoren pass from the wing, Purvis Funches had his initial shot stopped before Fluharty pounced on the rebound and completed his natural hat trick (three goals in a row) for a commanding 3-0 lead.
Fluharty’s big game came after Engoren sparked a 3-1 win Monday morning over Fenton.
“Noah did a great job (Tuesday), and Harry had two goals yesterday in the Fenton game and really picked up his level of play,” Wright said.
“He was putting first time crosses in to get balls behind defenders and creating opportunities by getting down the field and having high pressure with our outside mids like Kindler in there forcing them to make mistakes so we could counter on that.
“Better to defend up on top rather than the middle or the back third, so it’s been nice there.”
The Trojans were able to reverse the momentum with just 15 seconds left in the first half when sophomore defender Carter Tome stole a clearing attempt and drove a 25-yard one-timer just inside the post to cut the OPRF lead to 3-1 at halftime.
“Carter’s going to be a very good player for us,” Gervase said. “I would imagine he’s a center mid of the future for us, or maybe a forward. He’s a nice athlete. He’s playing very well.”
“We were unfortunate to give up a goal just before halftime – that was just a mental lapse,” Fluharty said. “But other than that, our defense was really solid in the back.”
The solid defensive play by the Huskies came despite dealing with some major adversity.
“Stevie Samuels, our sweeper, was sick, so we had to move Erik Arsovski there,” Wright said. “Then Mavin Gill probably needs some stitches (he left in the second half) and we had to put (forward) Jesse Kusimba back there.
“And we have other kids who are hurt – (Kirk) Svensson has been out with a knee injury, so it’s kind of a rag tag defense,” Wright added.
“It looked really good for the first 30-40 minutes, but as the game went on a lot of kids got exhausted and we were just trying to take players and fill holes. We’re getting as many kids as we can in there and platooning them every five or 10 minutes as they start to get exhausted.”
Keying the second half shutout for the makeshift Huskies’ defense was Arsovski, who punctuated his tireless night with a great open field steal in the defensive third and two consecutive nice plays to clear a Downers North threat.
Before enduring a revived Downers North second half challenge, the Huskies had two great chances to add to their 3-1 lead in the first seven minutes of the second half.
Fluharty nearly added an assist to his big night with 36:15 left but Kyle Pendleton’s 8-yard blast off a Fluharty cross was nicely stopped by Downers North goalkeeper Alex Wall.
Then three minutes later, OPRF’s Robbie Holmes stole a Trojans’ pass and lined a 30-yard rocket that grazed off the crossbar and over the net.
But the momentum soon turned.
The Trojans appeared to draw to within 3-2 with 31:55 left when Sam Crowley’s cross to the far post was sent into the net by a fast charging Xavier DaRosa. But an offside call nullified the would-be beautiful goal.
“We had some good opportunities and were creative,” Gervase said. “I thought that goal deflected off the goalie and the offside should have been called off. We had some good things going.
“Liam Budnik, our center mid, is playing really well, and Jordan Nunez was very smooth today and made a lot of good things happen. It’s our second full game with him playing, and we’re better offensively with him. We’re glad he’s healthy and he looks good for us.”
After the near goal, DaRosa continued to produce chances. His 20-yard left footed shot from near the top of the box with 22:30 left was denied by OPRF goalkeeper Joey Pasternak’s diving save.
Two minutes later, another DaRosa attack up the wing set up a Liam Budnik corner kick. But Huskies’ defender Roger Gusloff headed the ball upfield from a crowd in front to deny that threat.
Nunez’s shot from the end line was stopped by Pasternak at the post with 9:50 left and the Trojans battled to the wire as Andrew Zea made a great steal off the dribble in the offensive zone with 2:05 left and lined a 20-yard shot inches wide of the far post.
“We challenged them in the second half to play at our efficiency,” Gervase said of his team. “We’re as good as other people, but not to the point where we can turn it on and off at a whim. That’s a lesson we haven’t been able to pick up all season.”
Downers North has played a who’s-who of strong opponents, and will conclude the regular season in that fashion with a nonconference match Thursday against 14-3 Batavia.
“We hate telling people our record because it doesn’t really represent us, but at the same time we have to get it done on the field,” Gervase said.
“We just hope for some consistency and to be able to play 80 minutes at the level we can play. We’ll see if it all comes together for the end of the year.”
With a 7-1-1 record in its last nine games, OPRF has seen things come together very nicely down the stretch.
“It all started with the game against Larkin (Sept. 28),” Engoren said. “We won that game for the championship of the (Leyden) tournament. That was a great win, and we’re still just rolling from that win.”
“It’s playoff time,” Fluharty said. “We realize what’s at stake, and a lot of our seniors are realizing that this might be their last time. We’re really stepping up our play. And we’re not even playing to our full potential yet. We’re hoping to improve more at the end of the season.”
Coming off three straight regional championships, the Huskies are peaking as they enter the 2013 postseason.
“Our kids have been coming to battle,” Wright said. “We have a lot of confidence heading into the playoffs.”