Lions fall 1-0 to rival Benet
By Mike Garofola
How do you improve on perfection?
To follow Saint Viator coach Mike Taylor's example, you must first flirt with imperfection.
High-flying Saint Viator came close to perfection, only to have long-time ESCC rival Benet pull the rug out from underneath the Lions in their quest for a perfect conference record.
The Redwings (15-3-1, 7-1-0) stuck a dagger in the heart of those hopes on Friday night in Arlington Heights, using an early first-half goal from Kyle Kenagy and plenty of defensive spirit to hold on for a 1-0 victory, and claim a piece of the 2013 ESCC crown away from the Lions (15-4-1, 7-1-0), who were hoping to make history on the turf at its magnificent Morris Stadium.
"When we lost to Marist (2-0) at the end of September, I think all of us were wondering if we had a chance at sharing the conference title, especially with the way (Viator) had been playing and with how much individual talent it has this year," Benet manager Sean Wesley said.
"They possess so well, and play through No. 6 (Kevin Klinkenberg) and No. 10 (Spencer Moore) and their guys up top are big and strong. But even though they probably had ninety percent of the possession in that first half, we kept them far enough away from (Benet keeper Nick Senak). Our backline was terrific tonight and helped keep them out of the net until we took the lead."
The Redwings played with Kenagy all alone up top and shrewdly played the counter on Friday.
"We play that formation really well and everyone knows where and what to do, and tonight we showed it can work against a real technical team like Saint Viator,” Benet’s Sam Knapke said. “But we had to weather the storm until we got into our game in the second half, and became more dangerous going forward."
Knapke ran all night long in the center of the park, along with Michael Rindler, Paddy Lawler and Aidan Madden.
"This is always one of our biggest and most important games of the regular season,” Taylor said. “It always seems to decide the conference championship so we were expecting to be tested by a very good ball club in Benet, and we were.
"Our goal was to go through and be the first to go unscored upon (in the ESCC) in conference history, but tonight we allowed our first and only goal in the league. It cost us that record and the undisputed title, which we now share with Sean and his boys."
The Lions had outscored the competition in the ESCC this fall by a dazzling 37-0 and it looked as though it would add to those figures after getting off to a rip-roaring start. Saint Viator enjoyed nearly all of the run of play in its quest to undo the Redwings with some efficient football.
"We moved the ball all around, used the width of this big park to our advantage, and really kept them under pressure, especially in the first 15 minutes," said Taylor.
"Unfortunately, as it happens so often in this sport, you make one mistake and their first real chance ends up in the back of the net, and suddenly you’re chasing the lead."
Klinkenberg had too much pace for Benet to stifle in the early exchanges, while Moore, Kevin McMahon and Ryan Henry played just as confident in the middle. Front-runners Nick Winter and Zach Gyuricza ran at the Redwings backline, and were constant pests in the opening quarter hour.
Benet’s backline stood firm under mounting pressure.
"Bobby (Smith), Jack Armonda, and (Matt) Emerick were at their best tonight, especially Bobby,” Wesley said. “He played outstanding soccer for us tonight.”
Kenagy and Rindler created something out of nothing to give their club the only goal it would need in the 20th minute. That's when the senior Rindler created enough trouble on the right side to open things up with a quality ball into the mix, which Kenagy ran onto with a furious run into the box.
Kenagy went past keeper Kevin Napoleon, who was between the sticks for starting keeper Tom Martin, who is out of action with mononucleosis.
"We've got to be real careful with Martin right now because if he takes a serious blow to his body, he could be done for good this season,” Taylor said.
The visitors nearly doubled their lead minutes later when the Lions’ backline, thinking it had drawn the Redwings offside, allowed Kenagy to come through on the right side. The sophomore Napoleon made a brave save of a low drive from Kenagy to keep his club close.
Knapke, Rindler, Madden and Lawler began to get more touches after Benet’s opening goal to help take the pressure off its backline.
"You could see their confidence coming around after they scored," Taylor said.
Gyuricza and Miles McDonnell forced two blocks inside the box at the half hour mark, followed by a potential one-vee-one in the box by Gyuricza.
Just before intermission, Benet’s Eddie Manzke got in on Napoleon but was unable to get enough pace on his close-range shot to beat the Lions keeper.
"I guess we could have been up 2, or 3-0 at the break, but we were playing with so much energy and heart, so that wasn't something we even talked about at the half," Knapke said.
"We weren't really too concerned about (Saint Viator’s) ability to possess for most of that first half, because nearly all of it was forty or fifty yards away from our goal, and we knew our backline was playing well and they couldn't really hurt us with the ball that far out."
There wasn't much inspirational play from either side in the first 10 minutes of the second period, but a Winter header of a Gyuricza corner awoke the Lions’ faithful when the Benet backline was forced to clear his attempt off the line.
Madden parried away another from inside the six when Klinkenberg found Moore in close, and at 54 minutes Smith calmly cleared another dangerous ball with a nifty side-footer after a long throw from Ethan Wolf found Moore, then Gyuricza and finally Winter.
Soon after, Taylor had to bring two-time all-state midfielder Moore off for the night, and the four-year star sat quietly on the bench for the final 18 minutes of regulation with a nagging hamstring.
"He looked sharp and quick for the first hour or so, but something kind of gave in that hammy of his, and we couldn't take any chances in this cold air. We need him to be ready for the playoffs," Taylor said.
Shortly thereafter, Taylor and his staff went to four up top, with the hope that the quartet of Winter, Gyuricza, Mateo Leudo and Aidan Williams could find the equalizer in the game’s final 7 minutes.
A timely tackle from Armonda stopped would could have been a chance for Gyuricza at 74 minutes, but Knapke, Lawler, Madden and the rest of the Redwings did well to manage their precarious lead down the stretch.
The Redwings won first and second balls and in doing so, held the ball long enough to chew up valuable seconds on the clock, while occasionally playing direct to Kenagy, who kept the Lions backline from pushing forward and into the attack.
"We stayed composed and compact when they had the ball, and attacked, and you really saw us play that 4-5-1 well, especially in the second half," Kenagy said.
Benet held its collective breathe when a long throw from Wolf was allowed to fall freely to Gyuricza, who promptly unleashed a guided 8-yard missile off the woodwork in the 80th minute, but that would be the last of the chances as this gripping contest was whistled over.
"It's a great way to end our season for the second year in a row," stated Knapke.
"Last year we beat them in the season finale to win the ESCC title outright, and tonight we did everything we needed to, to get a piece of the title this year."
"We had our chances, and didn't finish them, and they did,” Taylor said. “But that's soccer, and the way it goes sometimes.
"They boys need to get all those feelings out of giving up our first conference goal, and having to share the ESCC title, but after that, it's all over, and now we start 0-0, and begin to play for real next Tuesday at regionals."