Wildcats blank Panthers to capture regional title
By Curt Herron
After being eliminated in its playoff opener the past two years, Neuqua Valley returned to a regional finals competition on Saturday.
Not surprisingly, the proud Wildcat program was determined that it wouldn't miss out on sectional play for a third straight season.
Neuqua was well aware that Oswego was dangerous, as was evidenced by its win on penalties over Plainfield North in the semifinals.
But the Wildcats quickly grabbed control and built up a decisive two-goal lead at the break before capturing a 3-0 victory in Geneva.
Skip Begley's squad won its sixth straight to improve to 14-5-1 on the season. They are 11-2-1 after getting off to a 3-3 start.
The Wildcats advance to Tuesday's 4:30 Metea Valley Sectional semifinals, where they'll play Naperville Central (15-2-2) at 4:30 pm.
Naperville Central advanced with a 3-0 win over Metea Valley. Naperville North and Waubonsie Valley also moved on to the sectional.
"We have a team with a lot of talent that can really work together well and we use that on the field," said senior Nick Castelvecchi, one of the team's captains. "We've shut out the last two teams in the playoffs and we're ready to keep on moving forward.
"We've had a great season and we want keep working hard in practice and come out and show it in games. Our teamwork and communication on the field and working hard in practice have gotten us this far. I like our confidence and how we outwork other teams."
Jake Loncar scored both first-half goals for the winners while Jack Schoonenberg contributed an insurance score after the break.
Xavi Ortiz and Ryan Ross chipped in with assists for the Wildcats, who have scored multiple goals in 11 of their last 14 outings.
This also marked the squad's first back-to-back shutouts of the campaign. Neuqua has posted seven clean sheets during the season.
Andrew Fadanelli recorded the shutout while Reed Kurtenbach, Joel Algrem, Castelvecchi and Schoonenberg led the way on defense.
"The kids are cognizant of the success that Neuqua has had so being one and done in the last two years was difficult for us," Begley said. "I told them that I hadn't won a boys regional since the last century and they looked at me a little puzzled until I explained it.
"We've talked about how it was anybody's opportunity in the playoffs, but you have to put in the energy and the enthusiasm and the excitement. Teams skill-wise and tactically and technically are all about the same. It just comes down to how hard you want it and how hard are you willing to work for it."
It's pretty clear that based on their recent play that the Wildcats would like to see their season continue for a little while.
Since its hot streak began on September 12 against Waubonsie, Neuqua has only lost twice, with one of them coming on penalties.
And its other defeat, an uncharacteristic 7-0 setback to Morton on September 28, may have actually been a positive for the squad.
"We had a down day against Morton where we were playing well and then boom, all of a sudden it was 5-0 or 6-0," Begley said. "I challenged them in frustration after the game and they came back to practice and challenged me so that we'd all work together.
"They've done everything that I've asked from that point forward and we've played really well with just one loss, and that was on PKs in St. Louis. The other thing is that offensively we can put up some crooked numbers. We've been generating some options and chances.
"Jake has been scoring well and Ryan leads us with 15 goals. Kyle (Carson) has picked up the pace and Xavi and Kas (Baladi) can score from the midfield and Manushe (Nyamunduro) and Connor (LeFevour) from out wide and Jack had a great shot and a great finish today.
"So we have a lot of people who've got goals and I think that's critical for us, and also when we can get our backs to play solid and eliminate opportunities in front of the goal. Andrew was strong with Nick and Reed in front and Joel and Jack all played really well."
The tone was established early on Saturday when the Wildcats connected on their first good chance to move in front for good.
Ortiz got things started with a free kick into the box and after some drama, Loncar put in the loose ball in the 11th minute.
Shortly after Ortiz was denied on another free kick by Panthers keeper Christian Torres, Oswego had its first good chance.
Luke Moran was thwarted on a liner by Fadanelli before Manushe Nyamunduro and Ortiz had attempts denied on the other side.
Following a brief lull, Fadanelli leapt to stop a liner by Victor Contreras and Castelvecchi lined a corner kick to Torres.
It looked like the Wildcats would have to settle for a 1-0 halftime lead but a late flurry in the box led to another goal.
As the final half minute began, Kas Baladi was stopped on a header and Connor LeFevour tried one before a foul was called.
Loncar converted the subsequent penalty and Neuqua suddenly enjoyed a two-goal lead which effectively did in the Panthers.
"Knowing that we hadn't won a regional lately, we were going to come out and put in the work rate," Fadanelli said. "As coach said in the classroom session, it was about energy and whoever wanted it more. So that was our number one motto coming out here today.
"We've come a long way from the beginning of the season and I'm happy with where we're at. We knew that we had to step it up if we wanted to get farther than the past few years. I like our team chemistry, everyones' will to win and their determination to play each game to their best."
Oswego continued to look for a score to turn the momentum around but the Wildcat defense was able to shut down most efforts.
After Fadanelli halted a liner from Blake Kearby, Ortiz saw his free kick halted and Kurtenbach shut down Juan Carlos Mora.
Shortly after Castelvecchi headed away a liner by Kearby, the Wildcats scored again to finally end whatever drama remained.
In the 54th minute, Ross sent a ball through the box that got back to Schoonenberg, who connected to make it a 3-0 contest.
Neuqua actually had a few more good chances after that but a try by Loncar and two attempts from Kyle Carlson were stopped.
With a sixth straight victory and second consecutive shutout in the books, Neuqua now sets its sights on bigger some goals.
"This is one big step in our main goal of winning state and that's what we've been working for in our practices and games," Kurtenbach said. "We came into this game with a high intensity and a high work rate and knew that we would get the job done.
"We're a close-knit team and all 24 of us are good friends. So we have good teamwork and everyone is confident on the ball and confident when we're playing. Now it comes down to who wants it more since any team can beat any other team on any day."