OAK PARK -- Few suburbs can match the long and rich history of Oak Park.
A roster of ex-residents includes Ernest Hemingway, inventor Percy Julian, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, actor Bob Newhart, Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1990 Miss America Marjorie Vincent and astronaut James Kerwin, to name only a very few. Comedy legend Betty White was born there but moved as a child.
If animation is the thing, Dan Castalanetta (the voice of Homer Simpson) and Daws Butler (Yogi Bear) grew up in Oak Park. Even the builder of the McDonald’s restaurant empire (Ray Kroc) and the inventor of the Twinkie (James Dewar) once lived there.
No one would confuse the Oak Park and River Forest’s early season 2023 schedule with a soft and tasty Twinkie -- the Huskies’ previous four opponents going into Thursday had a combined record of 27-2-4.
Another formidable task loomed Thursday in visiting Downers Grove South (5-3-0), but the Huskies (2-4-1) started fast to grab a 1-0 lead 17 minutes in and battled on to a 3-1 win.
“We actually met before (the game) as a team,” said Oak Park and River Forest senior standout Sophia Henry. “I called everybody together, and we just went over some things. We’ve all played club soccer together for a while, and we tried to remind everybody that we have that chemistry. And we have to take advantage of that.
“I feel like this was such a team win. We haven’t had a win since we beat Fenwick (2-1 on March 16), but that wasn’t as much of a team win as I felt today was.
“All the pieces are coming together,” Henry said. “We were possessing much better, we were playing calm and composed. I’m really proud of us.”
So was coach Christie Johnston.
“We were struggling a little bit, but our record doesn’t show how hard we’ve been playing and the teams we’ve been playing,” Johnston said. “Those hard nonconference games like St. Ignatius (a tie with the 6-2-1 Wolfpack), St. Charles East, then ranked sixth in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, and Nazareth prepared us for games like tonight.”
Taking unbeaten and 18th-ranked Hinsdale Central (6-0-2) to two overtimes on the road Tuesday before falling 2-1 was a good sign of things to come for Oak Park and River Forest. And the hunger for a win showed from the opening seconds Thursday.
In what would be a theme all night, Downers Grove South junior goalkeeper Hannah Fedinec was tested five minutes in and came up big.
Her kick save in the crease of a Kiki Leman eight-yard shot was one of Fedinec’s many brilliant stops. That time teammate Marifer Duran nicely cleared the rebound out of play.
After another Oak Park and River Forest shot off a cross went just over the frame in the 9th minute, the Mustangs answered with their own chance.
Aubrey Molinari’s strong clear upfield of an cross to the top of the box sprung Downers Grove South teammate Emily Petring on a 1-v-2 counterattack that ended with a 20-yard liner just wide right.
But the Huskies were back with four decent chances in the next five minutes, the fourth producing a 1-0 Oak Park and River Forest lead.
Kylie Houghton’s corner kick send from the right-side sailed high to the left side of the net, where senior Ariadne Chow deflected it inside the left post.
Downers Grove South coach Chris Hernandez felt like an unfortunate prophet.
“We told the girls we can’t come out flat, and I think we did come out flat a little bit,” he said. “You could tell the first 10 minutes of the game it was mostly one-way traffic.”
Fedinec also noted the early difference in drive.
“I think tonight what set them apart from us was that they came out really hard right away,” Fedinec said. “Had we come out with the same attitude, I think the score could have better reflected our playing ability.
“But I still don’t think it was a 3-1 game. The way we all played, it was a lot closer than that. They just capitalized at the right times.”
Downers Grove South soon upped its intensity and generated its own share of threats, but some tough luck and an inspired opponent proved too much to overcome.
“This was a game we told the girls after that could easily have been 7-7,” Hernandez said. “Both teams were getting opportunities and 1-v-1’s vs. the goalkeepers. We hit the post a couple of times, and I think they did as well.
“But our timing was off in the final third. You could tell by the number of offsides we had, just taking an extra touch or two and releasing. We just didn’t take our chances.”
“And they (Oak Park and River Forest) played hard,” Hernandez added. “You could tell with them winning the majority of the 50/50 balls, it was just a matter of matching that desire. And it didn’t go our way tonight.”
Defenders Teyani Sharkey and Micah Olson both had shot blocks to deny Oak Park and River Forest chances in or near the box in the 24th and 25th minutes.
Downers Grove South had three potential counterattacks soon after.
The firest was denied by an offside call. Then Huskies goalkeeper Jackie Bollinger just outraced Skylar Swanson to a long send and kicked it upfield. On the third bid in the 29th minute, Swanson’s dribble in was thwarted when Bollinger came out to smother the shot attempt 15 yards off her line.
The best of all Downers Grove South chances was to follow 8:10 before halftime. Petring powered a 25-yard free kick from the right side that struck off the upper right crossbar. Duran’s high kick attempt at the bouncing rebound went wide.
“We made a couple changes in terms of our shape and players at certain spots,” Hernandez said of his team’s late half surge.
“I was really impressed with the number of chances we were getting: we just unfortunately weren’t taking them. Against quality teams you have to take advantage of those or it’ll come back to bite you.”
Fedinec denied Oak Park and River Forest’s next snap of the jaws in the 36th minute. Off another Houghton corner kick send, Fedinec again made a great sliding foot block of a Kiki Leman six-yard shot, then grabbed the loose rebound.
Answering point-blank pressure is a matter of preparation for Fedinec.
“Before my games,” Fedinec said, “I like to focus on my warmup and make sure I’m getting clean reps in and playing the best I can. And making sure I’m mentally there, because the game is just as mental as physical.”
Oak Park and River Forest’s Bollinger was also brilliant in net. In the 39th minute, Maura Raftery’s midfield steal ignited an attack that ended with Swanson winning a ball, dribbling in but having Bollinger dive on the dribble 10 yards from goal to keep the score 1-0.
The ping-pong pace resumed after halftime with a Downers Grove South corner kick 50 seconds after the break foreshadowing a great bid to tie with 34:30 left.
A long, Sharkey send reached Petring right of goal. She eluded a defender and a charging Bollinger with her dribble to create a tough-angled open net try. But Henry got back to block Petring’s shot, and a subsequent rebound effort went wide.
While that wild stop wasn’t easy, the Oak Park and River Forest defense again withstood the storm.
“Our communication is really good, and we were holding our line,” Henry said. “We were playing an offside trap a lot. We talked before the game. And we had one girl, Addi (Bliss) who’s never played outside back before, killing it out there. She had prefect positioning. Everything was really coming together.”
The Huskies offense came together nicely with 26:06 left to produce a 2-0 lead.
Malie Cassel made a great dribble-drive up the right side and sent a cross to fellow sophomore Abby Cockerill, who nicely one-touched a 15-yard redirect low inside the left post.
Cockerill’s earned her first varsity goal on a picture-perfect finish.
“I just tried to get in toward the back post, because it’s always open,” Cockerill said. “She (Cassel) played a really great ball, and I was able to just tap it in.
“I was just trying to get a foot on it. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it (from that distance), but I kind of just went for it.”
The Huskies nearly struck again with 24:15 to go, when Mia Dunavan stole a Mustangs throw-in and sprung Cassel on another run that ended with Cassel’s shot going wide.
The next eight minutes were about momentum turns: first, in Downers Grove South’s favor.
Another Swanson run into the box, this time with 19:48 left, was initially denied 18 yards out by the Oak Park and River Forest defense and Bollinger. But Petring gathered the rebound and bounded her shot off the right post and in to make the score 2-1.
“Skylar got down there, and Emily cleaned it up for us,” Hernandez said. “Emily’s been playing well. That’s her 13th goal of the year.”
The Mustangs nearly struck again in similar fashion with 17:10 to go, when Swanson fielded a long send, raced in left and angled a 15-yard try just wide of a diving Bollinger and the right post.
That scare energized Oak Park and River Forest, which just 46 seconds later added a huge insurance goal and ended the scoring after Cate Ryan’s pass sprung Genevieve Simkowski with a right-side rush and liner into the lower left corner of the net.
“That (answering opponents’ goals) is definitely something we’ve been struggling with this season,” Cockerill said. “I think it was important for us to come back and get that third goal.
“Some previous games we haven’t been pressing up-top as well,” Cockerill added. “But this game we really pressed well together and were able to get it up at the top of the box, cross it in and stuff like that.”
The three-goal total topped Oak Park and River Forest’s previous 2023 high of two in a game.
“Our offense was just on tonight,” Johnston said. “We’ve been talking about winning our touches in the box as well as getting numbers in the box, and that finally clicked for them tonight. I was super proud of them.”
In a hard-fought West Suburban Conference cross-over win over a talented foe, the list of Huskies standouts was long.
“Sophia (Henry) really killed it tonight,” Johnston said. “Cate Ryan and her through passes – she’s been really working on those, and I couldn’t be prouder of her.
“Genevieve is a newcomer to the team, and she’s starting to jell well with the team and mesh with them. And Abby (Cockerill), as a sophomore, gets her first varsity goal. That was really exciting. I’m really excited for the future with those young ones.
“And Kiki Leman has been an awesome offensive threat. She made a lot of great runs tonight, which I think opened up a lot of opportunities for her teammates.”
While the scoring was complete in the Oak Park and River Forest win, Downers Grove South didn’t go quietly.
Grace Rappel’s 48-yard free kick with 12:55 to go was cleared well upfield by Mia Dunavan. With 8:30 left, a Reilly Renchin rush produced a corner kick and an eventual Rappel bid left of the box, but Isabella Kalina’s defense led to a Huskies goal kick.
Oak Park and River Forest senior Tess Wright followed with big defense with 3:40 to play. She nicely won a ball left of the box in a battle with elite striker Petring and cleared it upfield.
Henry then denied any last-minute heroics for the visitors, first with a clear upfield from the 30 with 45 seconds left. Then off Ashley Molinari’s strong midfield send into the box in the last 15 seconds, Henry booted the ball out to the side to wrap up the Oak Park and River Forest win.
“This is what we needed,” Henry said. “We definitely didn’t have this confidence before, and this win gave it to us. We were scoring, we were playing good defense and the center midfield looked way stronger than it did before. It was a physical game but a really fun game.”
Henry made a strong imprint on the game impact by her deeds and words.
“I just try to talk as much as I can,” she said. “…Just leave everything out there, 100-percent effort 100 percent of the time.”
Offensively, making Oak Park and River Forest’s three-goal night more impressive was its opponent.
“Our two center backs Micah Olson and Teyani Sharkey have been outstanding this year,” Hernandez said. “We had four-straight shutouts and have limited some teams to zero shots or one shot-on-goal.
“Hannah is a couple of shutouts away from going top 10 all-time goalkeepers in shutouts in the history of our program (a tradition that includes five finishes at state of fourth place or better). So, we’re looking forward to having her the rest of this year and next year as well.
“We talked to the girls at halftime and after the game, and I said ‘This was a game (Thursday) that was more individual than collective.’ That hasn’t been us. It’s something over the next couple of days where we’ll look to get back to being the collective, and we’ll be in better shape.”
Fedinec sees good days ahead.
“I’m really proud of us,” she said. “A lot of our team are new varsity players, and the returning varsity players are doing a great job of making sure everybody knows their roles. We’re all playing really well as a team. Communication is there. It’s just fine-tuning certain details.”
One of those details is preparedness.
“I think all of us need to have the same mentality going into the game,” Fedinec said, “to work as a team and make sure we’re all ready to play no matter who the team is.
“Come in with a blank-slate mentality, not thinking about how an opponent played last year or their record. You can’t make any assumption about a team.”
With a deceiving win-loss mark and motivation, Oak Park and River Forest proved that Thursday.
“Everybody just played together as a team,” Johnston said. “We’ve been working on a lot of different things in practice, and things just started to click tonight.
“I’m just very proud of the girls and their performance tonight. They just put it all together and were really confident going in. Definitely a team win.”
Downers Grove South
GK: Hannah Fedinec
D: Aubrey Molinari
D: Micah Olson
D: Teyani Sharkey
D: Ashley Molinari
M: Gabby Okuku
M: Grace Rappel
M: Nuria Calderon
F: Emily Petring
F: Skylar Swanson
Oak Park and River Forest:
GK: Jackie Bollinger
D: Isabella Kalina
D: Kylie Houghton
D: Sophia Henry
D: Addison Bliss
M: Mia Dunavan
M: Abby Cockerill
M: Cate Ryan
M: Gweny Lopez
M: Malie Cassel
F: Kiki Leman
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Sophia Henry, sr. D, Oak Park and River Forest
OPRF- Ariadne Chow (Kylie Houghton corner kick), 17’
OPRF- Abby Cockerill (Malie Cassel), 54’
DGS- Emily Petring (Skylar Swanson), 61’
OPRF- Genevieve Simkowski (Cate Ryan), 64’