Jerzy Skowron is no stranger to the South Elgin soccer scene.
Serving as the boys varsity coach for the last four seasons and an assistant on the girls side for three campaigns, Skowron has a deep knowledge of the potential for producing a consistent winning program for the Storm.
Maybe that’s why Skowron decided to accept a new title this spring: South Elgin girls varsity head coach.
“I’m incredibly excited,” Skowron said. “…We’re ready. I’ve got a great group of girls returning, plus a group of freshmen coming in.”
After a 6-9-4 overall record, including a 4-3-2 mark good for fourth place in the 10-team Upstate Eight Conference last season, the Storm have to retool their roster following the graduation of Katrina Barthelt, who scored a team-high 13 goals last season. The three-time Chicagoland Soccer All-Stater produced the bulk of the offense last season and easily outdistanced Angel Carillo (three goals).
Skowron said his returnees and newcomers are ready for the challenge to fill the goal gap.
“We’ll be young (with six seniors among nine varsity returners). I’m excited,” Skowron said. “I think from a hunger standpoint, they are very strong and very excited to get this going. “There’s a comfort for them. … They know me already, which will help. The girls are embracing each other and coming together relatively quickly, a lot quicker than I’m used to from being on the boys side the last four years.”
Senior goalie Karissa Cruz headlines the returnees after compiling 76 saves and allowing 15 goals in 11 games last season. The University of Dubuque recruit will start for the third-straight season. She has worked on several aspects of her game to prepare for a bigger role.
“One thing I was able to take away from last year’s season was that communication goes a long way,” Cruz said. “Being able to encourage and direct my team during a game shows, and also gives a better outcome during games. During the offseason, which started two weeks after high school season, my club coach preached to me about doing conditioning and technical footwork. One major thing … that I took away was my foot skills. I’m even more confident with my ability to keep the ball as a keeper.
“My goals for this season are to enjoy my senior season and leave the program knowing I did the most that I could for the varsity teams that I’ve played for. But most importantly, I want to leave a big impact on the girls that will continue to thrive in the program after I leave.”
Skowron said he will lean on Cruz’s experience and maturity to direct the team, especially the backline.
“I think Karissa Cruz is one of top kids in our area, maybe the top goalie in our conference,” he said. “She’s been working hard. We will go as far as she will lead us. Everybody knows what Karissa is capable of. She’s starting to find her voice and leadership and everyone looks to her as a leader. Just having her ready to go is beneficial.”
Skowron added that Cruz is aiming to build upon her solid junior season.
“Karissa is really good with her feet,” he said. “She’s communicating more and more every day. From a leadership perspective, I’m one of those who will always look to goalies to be a leader, whether wearing an armband or not. She’s taken it to heart in the offseason. She smiles all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her upset or disappointed. She loves the game and pressure situations.”
Junior forward Ella Dihel, a three-year varsity player, scored two goals to go with a team-high eight assists last season.
“Ella was called our Swiss Army knife in her freshman year,” Skowron said. “She played everywhere but goalie. She was playing behind a powerhouse in Katrina last year. But she really came through for us last year.
“She’s a very good player and a great kid. She’s always smiling and would make a fantastic coach one day. She has huge aspirations and wants to play at the next level.”
Senior defender Lesly Ulloa is a player to watch for the Storm this season. Ulloa said the Storm have a good blend of experience and youth to back their bid for the top spot in the conference.
“Our new incoming players are more than ready to show off their skills and talent,” Ulloa said. “They will be great additions to helping our team achieve better attacks in the final third of the field and leading us to generate more shots on goal.
“They have the motivation and drive to help our team succeed throughout the season. Our team's potential consists of the ability to win a conference title and hopefully more. … Our team is more than ready to put up a good fight.”
Ulloa said she gained a better perspective of leading the program from last season’s seniors. She plans to use that knowledge this spring.
“My graduated varsity teammates have influenced me as a player for the better,” Ulloa said. “I learned that encouraging your teammates will benefit them greatly. I always looked up to them for reassurance and encouragement.
“They taught me how to have more confidence in myself while playing on the field as a defensive player, as well as having trust in my ability to perform successfully in high-pressure situations. I also learned how team chemistry can go very far.
“Last year's seniors took the initiative to give our team multiple opportunities to have team bonding activities. I plan to incorporate this strategy with this year's varsity team. Team bonding makes a huge impact on the overall chemistry of the team leading to more success in our playing.”
Skowron said Ulloa is capable of playing a big role for the Storm.
“Lesly learned a lot from last season. She came into her own and became one of our more reliable players,” he said. “I’m excited to see what she can do in her senior year. She’s trying to get on the radar of colleges. She’s a hard tackler and is physical and not afraid to mix it up in 1-v-1 situations.”
Senior midfielder Kiara Andrewin has name recognition within the local soccer community. Her twin brother, Kendall, was a Chicagoland Soccer All-State Special Mention player last fall. Kiara is looking to follow in her brother’s footsteps, Skowron said.
“Kiara is trying to get her footing in there and getting some college looks now,” he said. “We will be relying on her to step the tempo as a defensive mid. She hits the ball well and we’re looking forward to seeing what she’s capable of doing.”
Skowron expects several freshmen to make a big impact this season, notably forward Nevaeh Gyurko and midfielders Ellie Vidic and Laura Garcia.
“Nevaeh is tall, athletic and quick and has a nasty left foot,” he said. “She’s not afraid to shoot, kind of like Katrina. She can be someone really special for the next four years.
“Ellie is another one who will make some noise for the next four years. Laura has such composure and confidence and a smoothness in her game.”
Besides their Upstate Eight slate of games, the Storm will compete in the Prospect Invitational again, Skowron said. He added nonconference games against Glenbard West and York.
“We wanted to get used to seeing the potential of teams we might see in the playoffs,” Skowron said. “We’re hosting regionals this year, which will help us. We’re one of the few teams still playing on grass, so we wanted to expose these girls to stiffer competition.”
South Elgin earned a point in its season debut in a 0-0 tie at league foe West Chicago on Wednesday night. Cruz needed just one save to earn the clean-sheet.
The Storm will get their first major test of season when they travel to meet Naperville North, which is ranked no. 12 in the Chicagoland Soccer First 50 state preseason poll, at 6:30 p.m. Friday (March 17). The Huskies lost their season debut 2-0 at no. 2 Barrington on Wednesday night.