St. Charles East (21-3-4 in 2013)
at Neuqua Valley (14-6-1)
When: 4:30 p.m. Tuesday (Aug. 26)
Where: Neuqua Valley (2360 95th Street, Naperville)
Last season: Did not play
Outlook: The start of any new season is naturally marked by anxiousness. The great desire is to get a clearer picture of your strengths and weaknesses.
“It’s how football teams feel this time of year,” said Neuqua Valley coach Skip Begley. “We’re tired of facing each other right now, and we just want to play somebody.”
Nobody is going to accuse either St. Charles East or Neuqua Valley of easing into the new year. The respective division favorites of the River (St. Charles East) and Valley (Neuqua Valley) divisions of the Upstate Eight square off right out of the gate.
Any team coming off a 21-win season has much to be pleased with. But St. Charles East is still brooding over the way its season ended last year, a disappointing 1-0 Class 3A sectional final loss to Lake Park.
The Neuqua Valley match is the team’s first step toward erasing those painful thoughts.
"It’s a new season, but that is something that stays in the memory,” St. Charles East coach Paul Jennison said. “It was not so much the result that was disappointing as that we couldn’t perform on the big stage. We really want to try and right that wrong.”
With seven returning starters, the Saints showcase a big, rangy and powerful attack keyed by senior forward Zach Manibog and midfielders Jordan Moore and Taylor Ortiz.
That has not gone unnoticed.
“Whenever you play St. Charles East, the big question is how are you going to stop that attack,” Begley said. “Paul does a great job with that group, and they play a strong possessing attack.”
St. Charles East is also stellar in the back. Two-year starter Brandon Villanueva joins Kyle McClean, Robert Wolak and Ryan Stackhouse on a stultifying backline that registered 15 shutouts a year ago.
This is the third year of Begley’s reign at the Neuqua Valley. He won a state title coaching the Hinsdale Central girls in 2009. All signs point to a breakthrough campaign.
“This is the first time where I’ve felt completely comfortable,” Begley said. “I know the kids, and the kids know me.”
Bowling Green-recruit Ryan Ross, a four-starter at forward, is the catalyst of the Wildcats’ attack. He scored 15 goals and contributed six assists a year ago. Senior Austin Flatt is another skilled offensive player.
Xavi Ortiz, a senior midfielder who was honorable mention all-sectional last year, has been slowed by a hip flexor. Kas Baladi is also not likely to play after suffering a cut to his foot outside of practice.
“We’re going to have to have some other players step up,” Begley said.
The cornerstones of the Naperville school's backline, senior defenders Reed Kurtenbach and Jack Schoonenberg, are tasked with neutralizing the Saints’ attack. Javi Versin is another skilled defender.
St. Charles East's Jennision is ready for an opening night battle.
“Neuqua Valley is going to be incredibly difficult for us,” he said.
Patrick Z. McGavin