Mustangs edge Warriors in regular season finale
By Curt Herron
Jon Stapleton wasn't surprised that Willowbrook gave his Downers Grove South squad all that it could handle in Tuesday's regular season finale.
Despite the fact that the his team had nine wins while his opponents had just one, the Mustangs coach knew that the Warriors would give everything that they had.
And Stapleton was actually pretty happy to have such a tight match, considering that it served as an ideal warmup for postseason play.
That's just what unfolded in Villa Park in the west Suburban Conference Gold finales for both teams which also was the Warriors' senior night.
Willowbrook took Downers South through the full 80 minutes and 20 minutes of extra play before the visitors prevailed in penalties to claim a 2-1 victory.
"Peter (Ginter) is a good coach and he always gets kids to play hard and they play the game the right way," Stapleton said. "So we expected that coming over here. Plus, it was their senior night and the last game on this field for some of their boys. So we anticipated a tough match.
"And yet, the playoffs are on the horizon so we had an opportunity to rest a couple of guys. But nonetheless, I thought that we had guys who stepped in who maybe haven't seen a lot of varsity minutes and they contributed, and that was a positive."
The Mustangs (10-6-4, 3-3) now set their sights on a rematch with rival Downers Grove North in the Lyons Township Regional.
And Stapleton is hopeful that Tuesday's 100-minute-plus drama serves his squad well as they prepare for postseason play.
"The season is always a process," Stapleton said. "It's finding opportunities to test yourself for the playoffs. Tonight was a great experience for our kids since it was our first overtime and PK situation of the year. There's no better time than the last game of the year to get yourself prepared for that.
"I think we've challenged the kids in a variety of ways throughout the season. We play a difficult schedule, we put them in environments like Indianapolis where they play quality teams. When you have those physical and mental challenges, you have peaks and valleys throughout the season.
"We've had moments where maybe we didn't play our best but you have to learn to fight through that and regroup and I think that we've done that throughout the course of the year. Our conference is difficult, and you saw an example of that tonight. I'm happy with how we've done and now it's fine-tuning for the playoffs."
While the Warriors (1-12-3, 1-5) were obviously disappointed to lose their second WSC Gold match on penalties, they're excited about their progression.
With only five seniors taking the field on Tuesday, the future looks bright for a program that hasn't been very competitive with the likes of Downers South.
"I was very pleased with the efforts of all of the boys today," Warriors coach Peter Ginter said. "What we want to do is finish with our best soccer at the end of the season and that's something that Willowbrook hasn't done in the past. We're really stepping it up in practice and really working hard on our tactics.
"We play the 4-2-3-1 system and the kids are starting to buy into the system and understand it better and are playing it better. Our passing game and our ball control has improved significantly. We also want to improve on our transition from defense to offense and do it under control.
"Today we really took a big step up as we move toward the playoffs. We have a very young team since I had five sophomore starters today. We're going to pull up a couple more sophomores for the playoffs. i think that the future really looks great. For the first time in a long time we have some depth."
Ginter has relied on three-year performers Dan Torres, Dylon Jones and Tito Cabral to anchor his defense. His other seniors are Rokas Dubinas and Jonathan Cruz.
In addition, he had five sophomores in the starting lineup, Aaron Johnson, Lucas Betts, Mike Sommers, Arkadiusz Szlachta and Asmir Perviz.
Although the trio in the back haven't been able to achieve the type of success that they would have liked, Ginter knows that they've helped to lay a good foundation for the future.
"Our seniors have been setting the example for the younger kids that are coming up," Ginter said. "They're helping to raise the bar into the direction that I want to take this program."
In the penalties tiebreaker, the Mustangs converted all five of their efforts while the Warriors made all but one attempt.
The miss came on their second try, which gave Downers South the upper hand throughout most of the competition.
Keeper Nick King dove to make the save on that penalty, capping a good night in goal for both himself and his counterpart, Perviz.
The Mustangs received scores from Mike Flores, Scott Holakovsky, Jordan Pawlicki, Jason Galik and Jack Freko during the penalties.
Recording converted penalties in the same competition for the host team were Mike Rogalski, Cabral, Szlachta and Torres.
"It was very nice to see," said King of the 5-for-5 effort and his save. "We practice these every day. We had a drill on these in the summer where you just had to focus on you and the ball and drown out everything else around you. It was important to take everything that we've learned and put it to use in our very last game.
"It's good to get one of these under our belts since now we have the actual experience instead of just practice, where's there's no pressure on you. Willowbrook played with a lot of heart but also give our defense credit because they were able to stop them when they needed to.
"We knew that the ball would be skipping a lot so winning it in the air would be crucial. So our guys stepped forward and that played a big role in them winning balls in the air, which minimized the balls that were on the ground."
The Mustangs senior keeper is pleased with what his team has accomplished so far and looks forward to how they'll finish things off.
"We have sparks where we can compete with the top teams in the state, like when we tied Hinsdale Central or barely lost to Morton," King said. "So if we play with our hearts and also our backs on the line, we can come out pretty big in the playoffs."
While the Mustangs swarmed one another following the exciting victory, the Warriors were somewhat down following another close call.
Beside the two losses by penalty in league play, Willowbrook also played three other draws during the past month.
For the senior trio of Cabral, Jones and Torres, there was a sense of pride from putting together one of the team's best efforts of the year.
But there was also the disappointment that comes from not getting the result, especially in the final game playing together on their home field.
"We knew that this was our last game here so we wanted to go out there and leave it all out there," Cabral said. "We're thankful that the underclassmen gave it their all today to help us out.
"I was happy that everyone that we had on the field just kept scrapping and kept fighting for it since they're a good team. It's really upsetting that it's coming to an end. I love playing with these guys.
"Our sophomore year was awful but the last two years we've really been able to turn it around and things are going in the right direction. I'll be excited to come back next year and see what these guys can do."
Downers South used a score late in the first half to gain the early advantage but Willowbrook countered shortly after the break to even things.
The warriors threatened about five minutes in when a Rogalski corner kick was gathered in by Johnson, whose attempt was halted by King.
But there wasn't much that the Mustangs keeper could do in the 48th minute when a Cabral free kick rebounded back to Johnson, who connected.
Both sides had their chances during the next 20 minutes, beginning with an attempt by South's Sean Burk that was deflected away by Betts.
A bit later, Patrick Gurdiel sent a cross to Galik, whose header was hauled in by Perviz, who also deflected a Nick Ambriz shot off a corner.
Following the half's midpoint, Betts got free in front of the net but King made the deflection. He later thwarted two efforts from Rogalski.
Both squads tried to avoid the subsequent overtime/penalties by continuing to attack during the final 10 minutes of regulation play.
Perviz got to a loose ball in the box just before South players converged on it and then Rogalski sent a free kick just over the net.
As time wound down in regulation, South's Derek Griesheim sent a liner over the woodwork and then was denied just before the whistle.
In the first overtime, Freko had a try headed away by Torres, Perviz stopped a Flores liner and Cabral broke up another effort by Freko.
There weren't as many good threats in the second OT as a Flores corner was cleared by Rogalski and Flores try off a defender was halted.
"No one wants to lose, but you can't for a better game from us," Torres said. "All of our guys came out and wanted to play and show that our program is here to stay. I couldn't ask for anything more since we worked our butts off.
"It hurts that we lost today since we've been together for so long. It seems like it's always been us three and it's been a great run for us. I'm definitely sad to see it go and I'm going to miss these guys.
"Right now our sophomores are really doing well in their league and we have a few sophomores on our squad. Those guys put in good work now and I can see them putting in a lot of good work in the future."
In the opening half, Eric Diaz started things with a free kick to Perviz and Rogalski had a free kick that Taulant Beshiri headed away.
After King halted a try by Szlachta, his counterpart did the same on a liner from Freko just before the opening half's midway mark.
Then a bit later, Rogalski sent a corner king to King, Jones broke up an effort by Jon Sleeper and Rogalski was thwarted on a liner.
Things finally clicked for the Mustangs in the 35th minute when Flores navigated his way past defenders to put in a close-range try.
South nearly added another goal right after that when Matt Pabis sent a cross to Freko, whose header was halted by the warriors keeper.
Willowbrook's senior trio gets at least one more match together. They begin regional play on Saturday against Bartlett in Streamwood.
"In our sophomore year when we played against teams like this, we were getting beaten up," Jones said. "But things have progressively gotten better for us and it kind of stinks that we lost in PKs. Hopefully next year, we'll finally win against them.
"We've been together for six years. I'm going to look back and remember playing with these guys since we were always playing together. Our record doesn't do us any justice but I felt like we had good team chemistry, especially the three of us."