There’s no doubt that pace is critical in soccer. But you also can’t look too far ahead.
With eight returning starters, the growth of rotational players and the addition of six talented freshmen, St. Charles East once again has its sights set on a big prize at the end of the season. But first the Fighting Saints have much to accomplish before the state series begins with hopes and dreams that culminate with the big state trophy.
Coach Vince DiNuzzo leads a program that continues to rank as one of the top operations in the state. St. Charles East comes off a sectional title and 20-5-2 campaign and has compiled a 64-12-3 record over the past four seasons (no games were played in 2020 due to the pandemic).
The Saints begin the season ranked no. 8 in the Chicagoland Soccer First 50 preseason poll. They welcome back Grace Williams, who was selected to the 2022 Chicagoland Soccer All-State team. Fellow returnees, senior forwards Mia Raschke and Ella Stehman and sophomore goalkeeper Sidney Lazenby, were recognized on the Chicagoland Soccer All-State Watch List.
“We made it to the final eight in the state the last two years, and we’ve made it to the supersectional and lost to Barrington both years,” Raschke said. “We’ve always been so scared since we lost so many good players like Ashley Stellon and Hannah Miller (after 2021) and then went back to the super and lost to Barrington a second year in a row.
“(In 2022) we lost so many players (Anna Champine, Yazmin Martinez and Libby Thomas among them), but I think we’re so much more confident and hoping, expecting for a state title with all of our good returners, top scorers and so much chemistry.
“… I just think going into this season we’ve put in so much work, we’ve been doing stuff like four or five days a week to just prepare ourselves to give it our all.”
Six of the returning starters are seniors. They came into high school four years ago and didn’t get to play soccer. Their first experience in high school soccer began with the usual tryouts and practices but ended quickly when the season was canceled due to the pandemic.
With that bad memory far behind them, Raschke (13 goals, eight assists last season) Stehman (12 goals, eight assists) and Williams (25 goals, 11 assists) present a formidable attack. Senior Kara Machala returns to the midfield along with junior Alli Saviano.
Junior Mackenzie Loomis (goal, four assists) and senior Lauren Silvestri return to the defense with Lazenby on the line.
A trio of seniors, Silverstri with fellow midfielder Tia Bernstein and defender Amanda Stepien, were named captains. Bernstein and Stepien saw time last year off the bench and are now ready to step up into starting roles on the field with the added responsibilities the armbands bring.
“I think the biggest thing about East every single year is the teams really grow and work really hard together,” Stepien said. “My freshman year was canceled because of COVID and being on JV for a year you learn that each team is tight. That’s the biggest takeaway no matter what team you are talking about. That bonding and closeness helps us in our games. We’ve had a lot of good players but the thing that really stands out is how well we play together. That’s the thing the about playing at East, we really work as a team.”
Bernstein acknowledged that some of her best friends are in the soccer program and that she wouldn’t want to spend her last season anywhere else.
“One of my favorite things at East is the girls don’t have to start to have so much fun,” she said. “There’s no drama. It’s just fun and everybody supporting each other. Last season I didn’t get much playing time early, but I worked hard in my junior year to get where I’m at. I was just voted captain, and it just goes to show how hard work will bring me good things.”
That’s a message she can share with her teammates, namely a prized crop of freshmen that wouldn’t have earned a roster spot from DiNuzzo if he didn’t intend on getting significant contributions from them.
“That’s the most freshmen we’ve ever had since I’ve been here, and there’s a lot to be said of the depth of the class,” he said. “There are a handful that aren’t with us right now that are good players, so it’s nice to have them get acclimated right now. We always say if a freshman is on varsity, they are going to get minutes and not just be on the roster.
“They have the ability to step in and play, and with the schedule we play we need hardworking kids with a similar work ethic,” DiNuzzo co ntinued. “Soccer is a priority. I’ve asked five of them and four want to play in college and I’d say I don’t see that often. It’s a good group of ambitious freshmen, and we have a good group of rotational players who played behind Yazmin Martinez (who played in 18 games at North Central last fall).
As excited as he is to see how the new players fit into the system, DiNuzzo is equally thrilled to see Bernstein and Stepien shine in their new roles.
“I’m excited about those kids, both rotational players who played in every game,” DiNuzzo said. “Amanda Stepien can step in, and she’s been waiting for her time and learned from some players. Tia Bernstein played a bunch of minutes, but not in a starting role.
“And we’re excited about the other kids we have back who now have an opportunity to make any impact by having more of a role on the team.”
Junior defender Abbey Petrick, senior forward Faye Harling and freshmen Georggia Desario, Annika Dodrill, Reese Kyle, Payton Rivard, Lauren Salter and Tatum Smith are some of the new talent that has arrived on the Saints roster this spring.
Rivard is under the wing of Raschke as her “little (sister)” as the Saints help acclimate and steer their young players through the challenges of a high school soccer season by giving them a “big (sister)” to turn to for guidance. On the flip side, it serves as a reminder to those veteran players of where they were not too long ago. It’s a definite win-win for a program that knows plenty about compiling victories.
Raschke’s certainly had a great “big” of her own when she was a “little” to Elle McCaslin who is now playing at Mississippi State.
“I love all the freshmen and drive some of them to practice, and we’re all really close,” Raschke said. “Even the freshmen who aren’t on varsity have a ‘big’ that they can go to and ask anything and get rides. It’s really helped us all get close.”
Undoubtedly, some of the conversations between “bigs” and “littles” are about their roles on the team and how they can get better. That’s the thing about St. Charles East soccer. There is no room for complacency. Nothing can be done about the seniors that graduated, success depends on players who return. The commitment of the returnees to work on their game and come into 2023 better than they were a season ago says a lot about the drive that this group has for continued excellence.
“All of these kids improve in the off-season,” DiNuzzo said. “So many times we see freshmen or sophomore girls, they plateau and the player goes through the motions. We have a lot of girls hungry to improve. We see how fast Alli Saviano is and how Sidney Lazenby had the daunting task of being our goalkeeper as a freshman and now has that added experience. Mackenzie Loomis reminds me of Anna Champine, and she’s taller and faster.”
Raschke isn’t too far removed from her sophomore year when she made varsity but was a newbie. It didn’t take her long to fit in, and she’ll never forget that and will use the experience to lead.
“I was so nervous,” she said. “I didn’t have my first year because of COVID, and I didn’t know any of the seniors, but they were amazing. Hannah Miller, Jenna Sitta and Megan Sreniawski were all amazing. It doesn’t matter what level you are on, what grade you’re in, everybody wants to fit in and that’s why we call it "The Saints Way.” The whole program talks to everybody. There are no cliques or anything. We’re all so close and connected.”
Beside their dream of going places in the state tournament, they actually are going lots of places to play.
After the Saints co-host the Rose Augsburg-Drach Invitational , which starts Saturdayt (March 18), they’ll travel to the ultra-competitive Naperville Invitational in late April where they’ll face Neuqua Valley and Sandburg in pool play. A road trip to Peoria to take on Notre Dame (Peoria), which has produced 33-straight winning seasons, is in the offing along with a much longer trip to Carbondale for a tournament in mid-April.
Long bus rides can be used for kicking back, bonding and even doing homework. Doing schoolwork while you’d rather be chit-chatting or zoning out under your headphones may be the less fun choice, but if the work needs to be done, these kids are going to do it.
“We prioritize school over soccer; it’s always priority number one,” DiNuzzo said. “We do check in on their grades as we get closer to the end of the season and ramp it up toward the postseason to ensure we have the priorities in order. I would say that our kids … are focused. They know that life after school is academics and getting money toward college, and they have to have good grades.”
Last season, 16 Saints were named academic all-conference while winning another sectional title and reaching 20-or-more wins for the third-consecutive season.
While a state title is the biggest goal and something the Saints haven’t accomplished since 2000, first they need to get past the supersectional round to get to the finals for the first time since 2014. Those opportunities may or may not arrive. Anyone who has followed soccer knows how difficult it is for even the most talented teams to persevere through the win-or-go-home postseason. What looks to be certain is the Saints are going to do everything to put themselves in position to win at the end.
“The kids want to be here, they love it here,” DiNuzzo said. “They love being a Saint and there’s something that can be said for their pride. They’re wearing Saints gear all the time. They love being around each other and the coaches, and this all starts in the offseason. We play about 10 games in the summer, and we use all 25 contact days. And some of these kids have been doing this four years.”
On Monday night the team had a program pasta dinner prior to the season-opener against Fremd.
The Saints kicked off their campaign with a strong 3-1 win over the 29th-ranked Vikings on Tuesday night. Stehman, Saviano and Williams scored; Desario and Silvestri collected assists; and Lazenby stopped 10 shots.
Prior to the successful start, the team bonded over WhirlyBall, an endeavor that mashes together basketball, a whiffleball and bumper cars. The girls like to spend tiime together , and that’s not going to change anytime soon.
“We were able to let loose at WhirlyBall and have fun, hang out, bowl and have some pizza,” DiNuzzo said. “There’s going to be so many opportunities this season that we want to be memories, and team bonding is a part of it. We (the coaches) went through high school, and we remember some of those memories off the field with our teammates more than some of the things we did on the field.”
As for DiNuzzo, who has 5-year-old twins, a three-year-old and a one-year-old, each day is a new memory. Still, he’d be remiss to not credit his wife for helping him balance being a coach, teacher, dad and husband.
“I was able to step away from club to spend more time with my kids, he said. “My wife is a true saint. She’s awesome.”
It's just one, big, happy Saints family.