LISLE -- Benet had a long wait to bounce back from an unusual 4-0 loss March 23 to Plainfield North.
The wait until Saturday was well worth it for the Redwings (5-1-0, 2-0-0) .
In a key early season East Suburban Catholic Conference game postponed from earlier this week by weather, the Redwings, ranked 13th in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, used goals late in each half to emerge with a 2-0 win over visiting and 14th-ranked Carmel (4-1-1, 0-1-0).
“It was such an important game to win,” said Benet senior forward Anna Casmere, who led the offensive attack with a first half goal and later an assist.
“It could come down to being the conference championship, so we wanted to do the best we could and play like it was a state title game. And we did just that. We fought hard ‘til the end.”
The leadup to the big showdown was a fight in itself for Benet. First, the Redwings had to deal with the lingering taste of the loss to third-ranked Plainfield North, a spring break stretch between games that became 16 days when the Carmel game scheduled for Monday was postponed.
But rather than dwell on that Plainfield North result, the Redwings fine-tuned things in practice and were in strong form Saturday.
“We played Plainfield North and that was a rough game, but we were missing a couple of key players (standout defenders Sadie Sterbenz and Nora Hanson),” Benet senior co-captain Reese MacDonald said. “And it’s good in a way because you don’t want to lose, but you also see it’s the real season now. It’s not going to be easy. You’ve got to work and can’t give up.
“You have to come back from a game like that and play a game like this.”
Benet coach Gerard Oconer also put the past two weeks in perspective.
“This (Carmel) is probably our biggest conference game of the season, and it’s hard when it’s so early,” Oconer said. “We haven’t played since March 23, so you don’t know how that’s going to be. It’s essentially the start of a new season for us.
“The nice part for us is that we were able to get some practices in, because once the games started (in mid March) we didn’t get a chance to practice much. Especially after finding out some things we needed to work on after the Plainfield North game, and sharpen some of those things up.
“The most important thing was getting people healthy in the back: Sadie and Nora were out. When two Division I players don’t play against a team like Plainfield North and their quality, it’s going to be a long day. But without those kids, others got experience in a high-pressure game.”
Benet was back to full strength Saturday, and needed it against a Carmel side that entered the match unbeaten in 2023.
“They’re really good,” MacDonald said of Carmel. “You just have to stick with players (defensively). Like Emily Fix (who has eight goals this spring), I play club soccer with her so I knew coming into this game she was really good and someone we would have to keep an eye on.
“So it was just staying on her, and playing our game instead of letting them dictate the game. Our two center backs Bailey (Abbott) and Sadie also had a great game, so playing together we felt very connected and compact there. It was good to defend and work against their offense that way.”
And as for Benet’s offense, speedy forward Casmere tested Carmel with regular attacks up the wings. An early such threat 15 minutes in was thwarted on a partial block by two Corsairs defenders of a 20-yard right side shot.
Benet again threatened in the 23rd minute, when Rachel Burns’ corner kick send was headed just over the crossbar by Sterbenz.
Casmere entered the spotlight twice late in the half, first on a dash and left-side shot that angled just wide of the left post in the 29th minute. Two minutes later came a scoring breakthrough.
Off counterattack passes upfield by MacDonald and then Ivana Vukas, Casmere had open space up the right side. She dribbled around charging Carmel goalkeeper Abby Tekampe and tucked the ball into the now open net from in front to put Benet up 1-0.
“It started in the back where I had a tackle,” MacDonald said, “and then I played it through (to Vukas) and then she played it to Anna.
“Anna is just blowing past everyone. It’s so awesome. I have so much confidence in Anna. When I see her going down the line, it’s great to know that if we do the work defensively we have somebody up there who’s going to put in the same amount of work offensively. With Anna it’s good to know you have that offensive fire to go with the defensive power.”
For Casmere, her fifth goal of the spring was a matter of practice and persistence making perfect.
“We had worked through so many different types of runs during practice all week,” Casmere said, “and I think that was so important to have the whole week off because this game was rescheduled. So, it was really important to keep practicing those runs, keep doing them, and we were getting the result we wanted.”
Carmel’s Jillian Miller was a defensive standout for her side, but summed up the challenge of facing defending Class AA runner-up Benet and its relentless star attacker.
“Coming out here we knew they were one of the best teams,” Miller said. “Every year it seems we get beat, but I felt like this year we have a good team and could have an advantage.
“I feel like everybody played really hard. We played our hearts out. We tried to man mark number 21 (Casmere). It just didn’t go our way, but I’m really proud of our team and how we played.”
Nothing is easy facing Benet. From Carmel’s 42-mile drive to the Lisle school for the 11:30 a.m. game to the Redwings’ talent and then Benet’s on-campus grass field, it’s one hurdle after another.
“It’s a lot different,” Miller said of the pitch. “I haven’t played on a grass field in a while. It’s usually just every time we come here.
“The ball is definitely slower. You have to learn how to pace it. It’s also more difficult (on grass), because you have to pick up your legs more, and it’s slicker. I think we all just during warm ups tried to figure it out. But it’s not easy.”
While usually a nice advantage, the grass field was also a challenge for Benet.
“We’re still kind of getting used to playing on the grass, because we haven’t had many practices out here,” Oconer said. “And it’s still a little bumpy with the grass growing in (from winter).”
The second half also started with a slightly bumpy moment for Benet.
Four minutes in, Carmel's returning Chicagoland Soccer All-Staters tried to combine. Fix’s nice send from inside midfield sprung Anna Hartman for a run toward the box. Benet goalkeeper Shannon Clark barely won the race to the ball.
Clark and Carmel’s Tekampe exchanged saves in a 40-second stretch with around 25 minutes left, with Tekampe grabbing a Sterbenz header at the left post for her stop.
Tekampe then adjusted nicely on a Keira Petrucelli 25-yard shot with 17:30 left. The low liner took a bad hop, but the Carmel netminder was up to the task.
Casmere took on two Corsairs defenders with 14:35 to go, but Carmel freshman Josie Hartman’s nice block denying the threat.
But Benet kept threatening. A top-quality chance came with 11:40 left, when Casmere found daylight on the right side and lined an 8-yard shot that caromed both off the right post and then Tekampe’s foot. Miller then cleared the loose sphere out of the box to end the pinball sequence.
Miller again came up big with 10:05 to go, denying a 1-v-1 attack by Casmere with an upfield clear.
“Jillian Miller at center back I thought had a fantastic game,” Carmel coach Stephanie Kile said. “She played her heart out and saved us so many times.
“She’s transitioned from being a midfielder to a center back, and she deserves all the credit today. She did a fantastic job. Emily (Fix) and Anna (Hartman) are also playing well, and Ema (Delgado) came back well from the flu.
“I think we have a solid team,” Kile added. “I just think today Benet was the better team. But I hope we see them again down the line (in the playoffs).”
Still down just 1-0, Carmel generated a corner kick that nearly evened the score with 7:45 left. Miller’s send was deflected in front, where from the scrum Fix’s close-in shot was saved by Clark near the left post.
“We were with them all the way,” Kile said. “They always have a respectable team: Gerard just really conducts a great program. We always know coming in it’s going to be a tough game. They always have tough players all around.”
Benet’s toughness and depth finally put the game away with 4:23 to go, when junior Ashley Donovan finished a Casmere cross inside the right post to make the score 2-0.
“Keira passed it out here (to the left side),” Casmere said, “and the coaches always tell us to stay out wide as much as we can. I wanted to be there for her in case she passed it to me, and I just kept going up the line.”
Casmere then made another pass to set up a tap-in finish.
“It’s always important to cut through to the middle so we don’t get caught in the corner,” Casmere said. “I saw Ashley running, and I knew it was her chance to score.”
Henry Wind was Benet’s first head boys and girls coach, starting both programs in the 1990-91 school year with immediate success for both programs (and later consecutive boys Class A state titles in 2000 and 2001).
Wind is now the Redwings’ goalkeeper coach, and his current star pupil Clark wrapped up Benet’s fourth shutout of 2023 with a little late defensive help.
A Fix and Norah Belmonte rush with 2:40 left was denied by Sterbenz’s block and clear upfield. Clark then repelled Carmel’s last threat herself, beating Fix to the ball on Belmonte’s midfield send toward the box with 1:15 to go.
With Wind’s successor as head coach Bob Gros also at the game, all three mentors in Benet girls soccer history were in attendance. And the current squad put on a worthy show.
“I thought we were solid in the back, especially Reese,” said Oconer. “The midfield really controlled things and limited the amount of chances they got. And obviously Anna Casmere was really dangerous on the outside for us.”
“In general everyone did their job. And when we get back in the swing of things (with more games) we’ll clean some small things up.”
Carmel also found value in Saturday’s key ESCC battle.
“I feel like we learned a lot today as a team how to position ourselves better,” Miller said. “From a defensive point we just have to be tighter on our marks, but we’re a really good team. We’ve been working hard together, and we all love each other.”
Said Kile: “We struggled a little bit with possession. Our first touch was a little bit off. But it’s hard transitioning to grass. I prefer to play on turf.”
It’s more highway and less natural grass Monday when Carmel travels to face ESCC foe Marian in Chicago Heights.
For Benet, it’s a busier stretch after the break with games Monday at Plainfield East and a league match Wednesday at Joliet Catholic. Saturday should be a good momentum builder.
“I’m really excited about this win, because this is typically our big rivalry,” MacDonald said. “We’ve been working on connecting the ball, settling down and not getting frantic with the ball when we take a bad touch.
“We’re finally learning how other people on the team play, and trusting each other. You have to trust that they (teammates) are going to make the run or make the tackle.”
GK: Abby Tekampe
D: Mila Schachelmayer
D: Bella D’Amore
D: Jillian Miller
D: Peyton Carney
M: Maddie Nikola
M: Madison Konen
M: Ema Delgado
M: Norah Belmonte
F: Anna Hartman
F: Emily Fix
GK: Shannon Clark
D: Sadie Sterbenz
D: Bailey Abbott
D: Nora Hansen
D: Gabby Hedden
M: Reese MacDonald
M: Rania Fikri
M: Rachel Burns
M: Keira Petrocelli
F: Ivana Vukas
F: Anna Casmere
Chicagoland Soccer MVPs of the Match: Reese MacDonald, sr., MF, Benet; Anna Casmere, sr., F, Benet
Benet – Anna Casmere (Ivana Vukas assist), 31’
Benet – Ashley Donovan (Casmere), 76’