Lions fall to unbeaten Althoff in Class 2A championship
By Mike Garofola
The long and winding road that a soccer team will travel came to a full stop Saturday afternoon when Saint Viator ran into undefeated Belleville Althoff in the 2A state final at North Central College in Naperville.
Althoff defeated the Lions 5-3 to earn its first-ever state title, and on this day, would prove to be the better side of the two- having a little too much Megan Pawloski and Kelsey Dinges for the ladies from Arlington Heights, as they have the entire season against all other opponents.
"To me, those were the two best 2A team out there playing today, so when you have that, you know in your heart that you belong, but on this day, (Althoff) had just a little too much for us and deserved to win the state title," said Lions head coach Mike Taylor.
The Lions (21-9-3) were an ambitious club, particularly when the state tournament began, and their grueling regular season schedule proved that they were tournament ready.
But they were immediately in trouble when Pawloski rammed home the first of her three goals in the match, just three minutes after the opening whistle.
"There were a lot of nervous players on our team, I can tell you that for sure," said Lions backline star Meghan McGrath.
McGrath's mates hit back right away and found the equalizer in scoring sensation Taylor Skala, who struck a well-paced side-volley past Crusaders keeper Madeline Nesbit from in close.
"After we got even, we seemed to play more relaxed, and with confidence, and the game kind of settled in to become a very good one for both teams," offered Ariana Kulinczenko.
Kulinczenko, who with McGrath and another senior, Jackie Tumberger, were superb all throughout the postseason, as the trio conceded just two goals in six outings before Saturday's championship match.
Althoff (27-0-0) would glue-stick Maureen Nesbit all over Skala (37 goals) in this match until Pawloski completed her hat-trick at 68 minutes, and the 5-10 senior defender and Skala had a terrific tete' all match-long.
Nesbit's teammate, Emily Jackson, was also close at hand to offer support should the Lions' scoring machine break free.
After Tumberger's free kick at 29 minutes gave Katelyn Hammarlund a shot on frame, the Crusaders became the more dangerous side up until intermission, as they finally found their talented junior midfielder, Dinges.
When she was on the ball, Dinges had far more pace and energy in the middle of the park, and likely was the difference-maker on this day.
"I thought we defended pretty well as a team for most of the first half, but No. 6 (Dinges) is one heckuva player, and when we lost her in the middle, it hurt us some," offered Taylor.
The last five to six minutes before intermission were played at break-neck speed, with Pawloski nearly making it 2-1 as time expired.
The Crusaders picked up where they left off in the second half, and got two quick strikes, barely 90 seconds apart, to send the Lions reeling, even after Skala brought her club to within one before 50 minutes.
"When they scored so fast to make it 3-1, we were stunned, and I am not sure if we really recovered, as a team, from that point forward," suggested Kulinczenko.
Alexis Jones finished at the back post what both Dinges and Pawloski would start at 44 minutes, then Dinges scored a marvelous goal from a redirected header after running onto a flip-throw from Pawloski at the near touchline.
Skala converted at 48 minutes when teammate Chloe Luthringshausen's enterprising run into the box forced Althoff defender Kelsey Panzau to haul the speedy freshmen. But that would be as close at the Lions would get.
Dinges sent Pawloski through over the top with a brilliant ball at 59 minutes to beat Stephanie Shanahan, then nine minutes later it was over as Pawloski chipped Shanahan from in close for her 53rd of the season.
Tumberger sailed a long free kick up and over Heidi Koehl, who had just been brought on to end the scoring at 75 minutes.
"We've set the bar very high for the players who are returning next season," began McGrath, "but (those) younger players really pushed us seniors this year, and we did the same for them, and it was a perfect partnership for all of us."
"I am so very proud of every girl on this team, and I love them all," said Taylor.
"Thankfully I'll be heading over to South Africa (his home country) to watch the World Cup and for a visit, and I'll use that time (away) to help get me over (this) loss and saying good bye to a great bunch of seniors, and a terrific team that gave me so many memories in my first year."
The Lions will return, among others, their two top scorers in Skala and Hammarlund, along with Molly McMahon, Kathleen Kane and Luthringshausen from their first 11, but will need to rebuild their entire backline, who are college-bound next season.
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