LISLE – Glenbard West sophomore Lauren Escalante had a promising career on the softball diamond.
She made the varsity as a freshman and played third base.
But now she’s plying her trade on the soccer field.
“I played softball all my life, and I loved it the entire time,” Escalante said. “But I love soccer more.”
Such sentiments are music to the ears of Glenbard West soccer coach Adam Szyszko.
“She’s a stud athlete, and she’s a great kid,” Szyszko said.
It didn’t take long for Escalante, who played club soccer growing up, to make an impact for the Hilltoppers. In just her second game, she scored her first goal on Tuesday and gave the Hilltoppers the lead against reigning Class AA runnerup Benet.
The strike came with 14:57 left in the first half of the Wheaton North Kickoff Tournament match. Hanalei Allen sent a corner kick in from the right side.
An initial shot was blocked off the line by a Benet defender, but Escalante pounced on the rebound and sent a shot into the upper left corner of the net.
“It was exciting,” Escalante said. “We had to capitalize on the opportunities we have.
“We’re always going aggressively at practice and in games, so just finishing for the sake of the team is exciting.”
Escalante may have started the scoring, but host Benet finished it, rallying for a 2-1 victory on a blustery and cold afternoon.
Freshman Ivana Vukas bagged her third goal of the season – and first game-winner – when she scored off a rebound with 11:05 to go in the game.
“I just saw an open goal and no one really there, so I just took my shot,” Vukas said. “I was just happy that we didn’t lose. I feel like if we had lost, we would have got down on ourselves, and it would have been bad for (the) Plainfield North (game).
“So, I was just happy to win.”
The match against third-ranked Plainfield North may decide who takes the tournament title.
The Redwings (4-0-0), who are ranked ninth in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, would not have won without the play of senior left wing Anna Casmere, who was coming off a three-goal, one-assist performance in Monday’s 7-0 East Suburban Catholic Conference win over Marist. Casmere did not score but her tireless work helped create both Benet goals.
The first came when she drove into the box and was knocked down by a defender, resulting in a penalty kick. Sophomore Keira Petrucelli stepped to the spot and converted at the 4:27 mark of the first half to square the score.
Casmere also was the catalyst for Vukas’ tally. She got loose in the middle of the box and fired an open shot. Chicagoland Soccer All-State keeper Ava Callaway got a hand on the try and deflected it into the crossbar.
But it caromed to the unmarked Vukas, who cashed in.
“She’s such a dependable person being in the box, so I know that any time I cross it in, she’ll be there,” Casmere said. “Even blindly, I can pass it in there, and I know someone is there to most likely finish it.
“I can’t even forget her face, how excited she was when she scored that off the crossbar.”
The Redwings are giving coach Gerard Oconer plenty to be excited about in the early going. The hot start by Casmere, who already has four goals and three assists after finishing last year with nine goals and seven assists, is one reason for optimism.
“She’s been dangerous for us all year,” Oconer said. “She’s really just continued her momentum from the end of last season.
“Once the postseason hit last year, she really found her stride. She kind of relaxed and settled in and then her athleticism just took over. She just let instinct take over instead of overthinking things.”
The result gave both teams a lot to think about, much of it good. In an indication of their great depth, the Redwings continued to win despite not having a full squad. Richmond-bound midfielder Brinkley Douglas has yet to play this season due to injury, while senior forward Rachel Burns missed her second-straight game with an ankle injury.
Those absences have been alleviated by the play of Vukas and fellow rookie Annie Fitzgerald.
“Both our freshmen are going to be important parts of the future of our program, even this year,” Oconer said. “You can clearly see that they’re impact players right away regardless of where we put them.
“They’ve fit seamlessly with what gaps we have through graduation. We don’t think of them as freshmen. They not only clearly belong on the varsity level but clearly stand out.”
Another standout against the Hilltoppers was senior goalkeeper Shannon Clark. After having had little to do in her first three matches, the Denver recruit made eight saves, matching her season total.
Those stops included two denials of Clare Kostolanky, who put a pair of 30-yard free kicks from the right wing on frame in the final four minutes.
Clark saved the first attempt outright and leaped high to tip the second one over the left post with 1:30 remaining.
“That’s Shannon at her best, when she’s laser-focused,” Oconer said. “You’d think a goalkeeper her height there was zero way that she could get to that and all of a sudden with her timing and athleticism, she gets to it.
“We’re confident she’s going to get to it. Even if nobody else is confident that she’s going to get it, we’ve seen it time and time again.
“And that’s what your best goalkeepers do. They might not see anything for a long time and all of a sudden they have to make that one big save, and it’s so comforting to have that kind of goalkeeper.”
While Szyszko wasn’t satisfied with the result, he was comforted by how the Hilltoppers (0-2-0) responded after losing to Plainfield North 5-0 in their season and tournament opener. Taking Benet to the wire on its home turf is nothing to sneeze at.
“We wanted to see a jump from game one to game two,” Szyszko said. “Plainfield North is a good side, and they punched us in the mouth. They capitalized on every one of our mistakes.
“We know that Benet is a good side, but we gave the kids a scouting report, and we played well. I think it was a great game for the second game of the season for us. We showed a lot of character.”
Which didn’t surprise Oconer.
“When you start off the season and you’ve got to play Plainfield North, and they capitalize on every single mistake that you make, obviously you want to have some kind of redemption the next game,” Oconer said. “They made us fight and scrap for everything that we got, and that’s typically how our games go against Glenbard West.
“It’s going to be a set piece here or there. It’s going to be scrappy and ugly, and you’re going to have to fight for everything you get.”
Right now, the Redwings have more to fight with than the Hilltoppers. Oconer said this is Benet’s deepest roster, one which isn’t dependent on any one person to score.
“I think we have a very different style of play this year in the way that we can pass it to each other,” Casmere said. “Everyone has got a part to play. It’s not just one person that is scoring every day.”
As for Escalante, she said she’s sticking with soccer, so we haven’t seen the last of her – or the Hilltoppers.
“We stepped up,” Escalante said. “After that loss, we knew we wanted to come back stronger.
“Playing the AA finalists, we knew we had to step up our game and prove ourselves, which I think we did. So, we’re just going to keep jelling as a team, connecting and eventually get a win in the bag.”
GK: Ava Callaway
D: Kendall Meyer
D: Katie Burke
D: Ellie Beaudoin
D: Audrey Sawyer
M: Clare Kostolanky
M: Hanalei Allen
M: Hanna Michalowski
F: Sophia Brown
F: Gwen Johnson
F: Ann Mitchell
GK: Shannon Clark
D: Sadie Sterbenz
D: Gabby Hedden
D: Nora Hanson
D: Bailey Abbott
M: Rania Fikri
M: Reese MacDonald
M: Keira Petrucelli
F: Anna Casmere
F: Johnna Caliendo
F: Ivana Vukas
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Ivana Vukas, fr., F, Benet
Glenbard West: Lauren Escalante 14:57 remaining
Benet: Keira Petrucelli (PK) 4:27 remaining
Benet: Ivana Vukas 11:05 remaining