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St. Charles East road trip yields Peoria win

By Nick Vlahos, 03/31/23, 10:00AM CDT


Williams brace leads Fighting Saints to 2-0 victory over Notre Dame (Peoria)

PEORIA –St. Charles East pointed the team bus south over spring break. It stopped in Peoria.

Granted, that destination never will be confused with Florida or Cancun. But the Fighting Saints appeared to have a good time on their visit Thursday (March 30) to central Illinois -- not to mention a good victory according to their coach.

Senior forward Grace Williams scored the only two goals of the game, one in each half, as St. Charles East, ranked sixth in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, moved to 6-0-0 this season. Notre Dame fell to 1-1-1.

The 7 p.m. game, contested in blustery conditions, matched programs that have a history of success in their respective geographical areas and in the state tournament.

St. Charles High School won eight state championships before it split into two – East and North. St. Charles East finished second in Class 3A in 2014 and has won two-consecutive sectional titles. 

Notre Dame has won three state trophies and hasn’t lost a regional final in 22 years.

That pedigree led St. Charles East coach Vince DiNuzzo to contact Notre Dame when his team needed another spring break game. The week became open after the St. Charles schools rescheduled their co-hosted annual Rose Augsburg-Drach Invitational to a week earlier.

St. Charles East added three games – March 28 at home against Burlington Central (a 4-0 victory), April 1 at Oak Park and River Forest and this one on the north side of Peoria.

St. Charles East held a numerical advantage off the field. Notre Dame’s enrollment is about 500 compared the Fighting Saints'  more than 2,400 students.

“Obviously, Notre Dame (Peoria) has a great program, with a great amount of success,” DiNuzzo said. “We try to match our kids up with great programs and consistent programs.”

It was the first substantial road trip of the Saints’ season, about 140 miles and 2½ drive-time hours one way.

One of the players’ parents arranged for a charter coach to ferry the varsity and junior varsity teams back and forth, according to DiNuzzo. The teams grabbed a light pregame supper at McAlister’s Deli, about a mile west of Notre Dame.

“It was a different experience for us,” he said. “We’re playing on grass. We haven’t played a game on grass. We’re traveling. We haven’t traveled more than 30 minutes. It’s something different, and it’s something I think the kids will carry with them.”

Some of the kids almost didn’t carry some things with them downstate, according to Williams.

“I know a lot of us were feeling a little carsick on the way down,” she said. “So, to come out on top is a really good feeling.”

St. Charles East has Williams to thank.

The Wisconsin-Oshkosh recruit scored about 15 minutes before halftime. Her long-distance shot hit the upper-left corner of the goal. Notre Dame goalkeeper Addie Jennetten got her fingertips on the ball but couldn’t deflect it away.

Williams almost scored early in the half, but her right-side blast went over the net. The Saints played the first half with a strong wind from the southwest at their backs.

“I knew on the first goal, the ball was going to fly,” said Williams of her opener, which had an assist from Amanda Stepien. “So as long as I put it on target and hit it as hard as I could, it was going to go in.”

The wind played a lot of tricks, according to St. Charles East keeper Sidney Lazenby.

“It was crazy,” she said. “You couldn’t determine where the ball was going. It was really hard to judge the ball out of the air; and there was a lot of that because there were a lot of free kicks.

“Every once in a while, it’s windy in St. Charles, but it usually isn’t this windy. I don’t think I’ve played in this much wind this year yet.”

St. Charles East also was unfamiliar with how Notre Dame played.
DiNuzzo said they had no video of the Irish to peruse before the game. That hadn’t happened since the Saints’ season-opener, against Fremd.

“We didn’t know what to expect, other than a team that was well-organized and disciplined, and that’s what we got,” DiNuzzo said. “They have a lot of technical kids that move the ball really well. It was a physical game, which at this level, that’s kind of expected. I thought the referee managed it.”

Notre Dame hung around and created a few scoring chances. Lazenby smothered a first half point-blank shot from Irish senior midfielder Claire Girard. Midway through the second half, a miscommunication regarding the referee’s whistle led to a shot from junior midfielder Elly Bare that bounced off the crossbar.

“We were a little off tonight, just some chances that maybe a little more communication could help,” Girard said. “But we were sticking with them pretty well.”

Thirteen minutes and 35 seconds into the second half,  about six minutes after Bare’s blast, Williams knocked the ball into the right corner of the Notre Dame net to give St. Charles East its insurance goal. Tia Bernstein earned the assist.

“We were pushing, and she kind of got in behind us,” Notre Dame coach Ben Ralph said. “If it’s still 1-0 without that second goal, anything can happen in the last five minutes. That kind of took the air out of us.”

Still, it appeared Notre Dame gained as much from this meeting as St. Charles East. Ralph said he told his team the atmosphere and play was at the level of a supersectional or a state finals game.

St. Charles East's time on the bus will probably help it prepare for the next road trip, which will be substantially longer. The Saints are set to play April 14-15 at a tournament in Carbondale, located about 350 miles south of St. Charles.

“We try to throw everything at them during the season, to prepare them for the playoffs,” DiNuzzo said.

“This hopefully gives them another learning experience. Because we learned a lot from how we played today, which wasn’t our best, but still being able to come out with a result …”

It made the late-night trip home a pleasant one, no doubt – provided the Saints took care of additional business before they departed Peoria County.

“We’re looking at about a 12 a.m. arrival. Hopefully they go to the bathroom before we get on the bus, because we’re not stopping,” DiNuzzo said with a chuckle.


Starting lineups


St. Charles East
GK: Sidney Lazenby
D: Mackenzie Loomis
D: Lauren Silvestri
D: Amanda Stepien
MF: Tia Bernstein
MF: Georggia Desario
MF: Kara Machala
MF: Alli Saviano
F: Mia Raschke
F: Ella Stehman
F: Grace Williams

Notre Dame (Peoria)
GK: Addie Jennetten
D: Ellen Dahlquist
D: Jane Geers
D: Meredith Oliver
D: Allie Stickelmaier
MF: Elly Bare
MF: Abigail Chaddock
MF: Claire Girard
MF: Maddie Stickelmaier
F: Parker Miller
F: Mya Wardle

Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Grace Williams, sr., F, St. Charles East

Scoring summary

First half
St. Charles East – Grace Williams (Amanda Stepien), 25th minute

Second half
St. Charles East – Grace Williams (Tia Bernstein), 67th minute