By Bobby Narang
AURORA – Early season games between elite teams with state championship aspirations can be looked at via many lenses.
Some view the games as a preview of things to come. A test of superpowered teams that can provide an early glimpse into the future. Others tend to think, given elements like unpredictable weather in the late winter and early spring, the first few games of the season can be somewhat meaningless.
Injuries, roster turnover, and even outside factors can lead to a dramatically different team make-ups come playoff time.
Late March games are tough to judge, but regardless of what happens six-plus weeks down the road, the battle between two stellar teams is must-see soccer – even when the weather won’t cooperate.
Defending Class 3A champion Metea Valley's coach Chris Whaley said games against supremely talented teams, such as Plainfield North, help provide an early glimpse into his team.
“(Plainfield North) is a good team, but we’re a good team too,” Whaley said. “These are games that I love early in the season. We get to be battle tested, and it will help us grow and get better. (Plainfield North) was dynamic, fast and strong. That’s what we’re looking for. You can practice every day, or play a weaker opponent, but that doesn’t necessarily make you better. These type of games make you better.”
That was the case on a cold and windy Tuesday night at Mustang Stadium on the campus of Metea Valley.
The hosts, ranked no. 1 in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, looked for an early-season marquee victory.
Enter third-ranked Plainfield North, a team with seemingly an entire roster of college-bound athletes.
Metea Valley entered the season with momentum, but the Tigers came to the contest aiming for their own building-block moment in the Wheaton North Kickoff Tournament. They also had their sights on repeating as the tournament champion.
Plainfield North, a program looking for its first state championship, was cheered by a group of 20 students, all lined up along the northern portion of the first row of the main grandstand. Throughout the 80-minute match, the Tigers’ students did not sit down and were constantly chirping at the Mustangs. Even a small group of all-yellow clad Neuqua Valley varsity soccer players attended the match.
Despite the conditions, the main grandstand had fans scattered from end to end in anticipation of a memorable game.
Yes, even though this was a late March game, it was no ordinary soccer game.
The Mustangs scored the first two goals, but the Tigers clawed their way back late in the second half goals for a 2-2 draw. Three of the four goals came on the northern end of Mustang Stadium, aided by a strong whipping wind.
A year ago, almost to the day, the Tigers and Mustangs finished with a 2-2 tie in the tournament. For Metea Valley, that draw marked the team's only blemish against an in-state opponent last season. Metea Valley’s two regular-season losses came on consecutive days in mid-April against opponents from Missouri. The Mustangs did not have any other draws all of last season.
For Plainfield North, the results gained a tiny measure of revenge after losing 3-2 to the Mustangs in the Metea Valley Regional championship game last season.
Moving forward to the final full night of tournament action, the Mustangs (2-0-1) host Sandburg on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in their next game of the tournament, while the Tigers (2-0-1) take on Benet at 6:15 p.m. on Thursday.
In a scheduling quirk, Metea Valley doesn't finish the event until it meets Glenbard West on April 26.
Both coaches got what they wanted from the game, except a victory.
“When it’s this early in the season, you are trying to iron out little kinks when you are trying out new players and positions and trying to get your defense organized,” Whaley said. “We tried to withstand the pressure they were bringing us. It was a challenge.”
Whaley said his team is experiencing a new phenomenon as a target instead of flying under the radar. Winning a state title will do that.
“We’re getting everybody’s best,” Whaley said, laughing.
The Mustangs picked up goals from Tyra King and Lucy Burk, and junior goalie Alyssa Gluting survived a busy second half to finish with eight saves. The Tigers received goals from Sophie Carlos and Alex Tetteh.
Before Tuesday, the Tigers rolled over their first two tournament opponents – Sandburg and Glenbard West – by a combined margin of 12-0. Plainfield North coach Katie Monterosso said she gained many positives in the draw, mainly the fight and resiliency of her talented team battling back from a two-goal deficit.
Monterosso said she has “10 or 11” seniors committed to play in college.
“We played calm and under control,” she said. “The first half we played a little frazzled and weren’t connecting. Once we finally calmed down and worked together as the team we are, everything started to click and work. We have to learn to how we’re going to work defensively and how we’re going to work off the ball, make some tweaks there and can we play quicker in some of our decision making.
“I loved how we never gave up and came back. Down 2-0, some people would bury their heads in the sand. These girls don’t. They kept grinding and never gave up. That’s the biggest thing I learned tonight.”
In the first half, helped by the wind, the Mustangs were the aggressor. King, a Northern Illinois recruit who scored a team-high 20 goals last season, gave her team the lead. She took advantage of a big bounce off a pass from Kyleigh Jannisch. King seized the moment, watching the play unfold and raced toward the goal. She knocking in a shot over the top of Plainfield North’s defense in the eighth minute.
“I saw the ball was going to bounce over the head of the center back, so I kind of just followed it and volleyed it in over the goal keeper’s head and into the net,” King said. “I felt the wind made a huge difference in the game. It pushed the ball farther and gave it more power. Without the wind, I’m not sure my goal wouldn’t have gone over the head of their defense. It helped a lot.”
King, a Chicagoland Soccer All-Stater in 2022, said this season there is a new vibe around the program.
“It’s a lot different. We have to work harder, because every team knows what we’ve done in the past,” King said. “It was a great game. We had a good battle. We always love playing them. It gives us that push to work harder.”
The Mustangs, who had four corner kicks in the first half, missed a chance to pad their lead early in the second half when King’s shot was blocked by a defender. Burk, a Northern Michigan recruit, tacked on the second goal on a running header, from a pass via King, from five yards for a 2-0 lead with 31:24 left in regulation.
“I looked up and saw a 4-v-2, and Tyra had the ball on the left side. I noticed no one else was in the box, and I also wasn’t marked,” Burk said of her goal. “I just stepped in, near the PK spot, and Tyra put it and I had a perfect header. It was an amazing battle. They played extremely well and came back.
“I feel we definitely have a target on our backs. I don’t think it affects us. We have a good mindset. We have to keep pushing.”
Metea Valley senior midfielder Riley Strcic said Tuesday’s game was a good learning experience, especially for the newcomers.
“It was definitely a battle,” she said. “I think we had the advantage in the first half with the wind. We definitely took advantage of that. In the second half, they definitely were in our half more, because they had the wind. I’m proud of us because we were able to push through. We have definitely prioritized earning another state title.”
Plainfield North’s high-powered offensive attack woke up after falling behind 2-0. The visitors started sending a wave of shots at the net. Four different players had quality shots, but Gluting played stellar in goal for the hosts.
Carlos scored the Tigers’ first goal. After a free kick squirted past several players from both teams, the senior knocked in a very close shot with 15:41 left. The next nine minutes tested the Mustangs, who save three Tigers shots nearly touch the twine.
Gluting had two saves in the tense stretch but couldn’t stop Tetteh, who found some space near the net and tapped in the tying goal with 6:07 left.
“I saw Mia turn the corner, and I just knew I had to get to the front post. She played it, and it fell right to my foot, and I put it in,” Tetteh said. “(Metea Valley) is a good team and always competes. We showed we can compete too. We have a lot to work on, but we played well.”
Metea Valley senior defender Alyssa Parrilli said the Tigers were a formidable early-season opponent.
“It was a challenge for a lot of us, especially with their forwards so good and high-pressing us,” Parrilli said. “The backline worked on clearing the ball, like we did in practice this week. It was definitely frustrating allowing that second goal. We picked up our heads, though.”
Monterosso said her team has the potential to have a special season.
“Coming in, taking over the program, this is a highly talented group,” she said. “Hopefully, we can go far.”
GK: Hannah Bukowski
D: Maggie Hamilton
D: Grier Isaacson
D: Emma Duval
D: Taylor Green
MF: Gabriella Mattio
MF: Sophia Carlos
MF: Georgia Liapis
MF: Lauren Mrugala
MF: Jessica Stewart
F: Tessa Fagerson
GK: Alyssa Gluting
D: Kyleigh Jannisch
D: Alyssa Parrilli
D: Kaylee Bannack
MF: Cydnie Bayless
MF: Riley Strcic
MF: Zoe Kirkman
MF: Isabelle Leofanti
F: Tyra King
F: Jordan Lange
F: Lucy Burk
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Tyra King, Metea Valley, sr, F
Metea Valley: King (Jannisch), 8’
Metea Valley: Burk (King), 49’
Plainfield North: Carlos (Mattio), 65’
Plainfield North: Tetteh (Davis), 74’