Warriors finish third to cap another fine season
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By Gary Larsen
Kristen Wittmuss just kept hammering away on the play -- firing on net, fighting past a defender, following her own shot and burying the deflection.
Wheaton Academy’s 5-0 state finals win against Peoria Notre Dame featured a few visually appealing goals, but Wittmuss’ second goal of the day wasn’t one of those.
“Our team just doesn’t score a lot of scrappy goals,” Warriors coach Scott Marksberry said after his squad’s third-place finish in Class 2A. “We score some pretty goals. But I like to see us score a scrappy goal like that, and I don’t think anyone would call that one a pretty goal.”
After failing to score in Friday’s semifinal loss to eventual state runner-up Saint Viator, the Warriors were much happier with their play against Notre Dame.
“Today we finished our chances and today we were able to control the ball in the middle of the field,” Warriors sophomore Crystal Thomas said.
The Warriors rebounded from the disappointment of Friday’s semifinal loss and got it done. “It’s hard but we went into this game with a good attitude, that we were going to finish strong, and we did,” the Warriors’ Meghan Grant said.
Wheaton Academy (19-4-1) also got goals from Thomas, Ally Witt, and Sydney Sharkey in Saturday’s win. Thomas, Caley Kopp, and Meghan Grant chipped in an assist apiece on the day.
And after Friday’s loss, they were all just happy to be lacing up their cleats one more time.
“It was just a good feeling to know that we had another game,” Wittmuss said. “It’s such a blessing to know when your season is going to end, and knowing that you have another game to play, giving your all, and showing everybody what you’ve got. It’s such a good feeling.”
Wittmuss, a senior who will be playing club soccer at Nebraska next year, left it all on the field in the final game of her high school career.
“She worked so hard today,” Marksberry said. “Starting in the Nazareth game, she really came on in that game, she played hard yesterday, and today she found her pace and found her rhythm a little bit, and she put the ball away. She’s been training like that, too, so it’s good evidence that when you train like that, you can come out and play that way.”
Wittmuss was just happy to fulfill her program’s primary obligation.
“We play for the glory of God, and I think I did that today,” Wittmuss said. “And I love my team so much and I love what we were able to do this year as a team. I just enjoy playing soccer and I love playing for God.
It was probably one of my best games, I’d say. I try to play hard every game, but today I was just able to finish my shots. It’s such a good feeling.”
Last year’s 2A state champions graduated one of Illinois’ best attacking players in Leah Fortune, but returned to the state finals thanks to a team-wide offensive effort. Witt, Thomas, and Sydney Sharkey will all be back next year to lead the attack, but the Warriors will lose the team’s third-leading scorer, a senior that will be playing college basketball next season.
Senior Alexa Sharkey slid back to a defensive midfield spot this year, but still netted 12 goals.
“She has been amazing, just a competitor,” Marksberry said of Sharkey. “She’s another kid that just wants to play. If we played five games a week, Lexi would just love it.”
Families like the Sharkeys, the Fortunes, and the VanderVeens have fed more than a few siblings to the program at Wheaton Academy, and the senior Sharkey was happy to get the chance to play with sophomore sister Sydney this year.
“It’s been really fun to play with her and she has gotten so much better since last year,” Sharkey said. “She found a way to use her speed, and get around people. She improved so much. (Assistant coach) Hudson Fortune trains with us and she has learned some of the moves he’s taught us real well.”
From her outside midfield spot, Sydney Sharkey led all Warriors with 15 assists this year. Sophomore Thomas had 17 goals and 12 assists this season, while fellow sophomore Witt had 18 goals and 7 assists.
Marksberry will say goodbye to a pair of senior midfielders in Kopp and Grant, and both will be missed. Kopp finished with 5 goals and 4 assists for this year’s squad, while Grant scored 3 goals and was third on the team in assists with 10 this season.
“Caley has been solid all season but the last two days – she probably played her best game of the year against Viator yesterday. She was lights out,” Marksberry said. “She didn’t make a mistake all day, she played hard, distributed, won stuff in the air. She did all the things we ask her to do. She was brilliant again today. She holds the ball up in the midfield and kind of relaxes everybody.”
Kopp will be playing soccer for Grove City College in Pennsylvania next year, where she hopes to find what she’ll miss most from her Wheaton Academy experience.
“Our relationships,” Kopp said. “Our team these past two years has been so close-knit. We get so close over the season and I think that’s a big part of why we’ve been successful. We really bonded.”
Grant will take her game to Wheaton College in the fall.
“She’s one that I didn’t hear much about coming into the program. I’d heard of some of our other players,” Marksberry said. “But she is so solid at the outside mid. She just does her job very, very well. She turns the corner well, she likes to go one-vee-one, she’s good in the air, and she defends well. There’s not much more you can ask for from a kid at that position.”
The Warriors will also lose a pair of veterans in back. Keeper Emily Mulder will play in net for Northern Illinois next year, and central defender Christi Dithrich will play for Taylor University in Indiana.
“For four years (Mulder) has been either competing for or she’s been the starting keeper,” Marksberry said. “She’s been a vocal leader on this team, she’s been bold in back, and she comes out and trains hard and plays hard.”
Nobody on the team at Wheaton Academy lived up to the reputation of a Warrior quite the way Dithrich did this season. The four-year starting defender fought through a pulled quad muscle, chronic back pain, injured ribs, and a tear in the meniscus of one knee suffered in Friday’s game against Saint Viator.
But that’s not even where the injuries end for the gritty senior.
“My shoulder is still bothering me,” Dithrich said. “I feel (the injuries) all the time. I just have to play through them and take a lot of Advil. It’s become my best friend.”
The senior’s primary rehabilitation method this year didn’t involve ice, heat, or involved physical therapy. “It’s mostly just sitting at home and watching the Disney Channel,” Dithrich said. “I just lay there on a huge Lazy-Boy.”
After Dithrich suffered a knee injury on Friday, Marksberry was determined not to play her in Saturday’s game.
“She’s a competitor. She just wants to play,” Marksberry said. “Today I told her we were going to sit her and she said ‘well I’m warming up anyway’. I said ‘you can warm up but you’re sitting’.”
“She didn’t start but she was sitting on the sideline just looking at me, so I told her the first time I saw her limp she was coming out. She ended up playing all but the first four minutes of the game.”
Another player leaving huge shoes to fill for next year is junior Lindsey Burke, who will graduate early next year in order to go on a semester-long mission to Africa next spring. Burke and fellow junior Kerrin Clancy were rock-solid outside defenders for the Warriors this season.
“She’s going to be a tough one to lose,” Marksberry said of Burke. “Her leadership on the team has been outstanding. Everyone on the team looks up to her.
She’s so solid and she’s got the whole thing we always talk about, how we don’t play for the trophy and we’re playing for Christ. She’s got that down. That’s her whole motivation, every time she comes out.”
Sophomore Kristin Morency saw action in 11 games this season in backing up Mulder in net, and she’ll bring her athleticism and competitiveness back next year. Juniors Clancy, Brigitta Engebretsen, Rachael Nasralla, Lizzie Bergquist, and Molly Cook will all figure prominently next year, along with sophomore Blythe Todd and freshman Alli Manske.