After losing a boatload of players from a 13-8-2 team that finished fourth in the Class AA state finals a year ago, there was good reason to suspect that it might take Fenwick a little while to ultimately find its identity this season.
The graduation of Chicagoland Soccer All-State forward Kate Henige, who had 19 goals and seven assists, Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association All-Sectional defender Abbie Rogowski and stalwart goalkeeper Audrey Hinrichs were key departures.
The experience drain continued with the commencement losses of midfielders Julia Cianci, Natalie Larucci and Natalie LoGiudice, and defender Emily Ortiz, all of whom played in 20 or more matches.
“We lost 11 seniors from last year, so it has been a hard transition,” senior Ellie Dvorak said. “I think the biggest improvement is that we are starting to play like a unit. We are understanding how each other play and our team chemistry is improving.”
In addition, talented midfielder Caroline Henige, Kate’s sister, opted for the club route her junior season.
The changes have created a learning curve for the Friars.
The season opened with four losses in a 10-day span: 3-0 to IC Catholic Prep, 2-1 to cross-town rival Oak and River Forest, 2-0 to Rosary and 2-1 to Maine South.
Coach Craig Blazer looked beyond the results and saw promise.
“We have improved our ideas of how to win the ball back and when we win it back how to connect better with each other,” he said. “The girls are improving and last year proved that the results will happen as we continue to improve and enjoy the process of getting better.”
He knew he had solid rebuilding blocks starting with his senior class in midfielders Mia Celio and Anastasia Lerma and defenders Victoria Demidiak and Dvorak.
Junior returnees, goalkeeper/midfielder Leah Hyland, forward Grace Kapsch, midfielders Gabi Kapusta, Fiona Roche and Maddie Rogowski, and defenders Lizzie Brunick and Jillian Pavalon, will be called upon for impactful play.
Sophomore midfielder Alex Ballinger and forward Kiera Mullarkey had a year of experience under their belts and have opportunities to take on more responsibility.
Dvorak, Grace Kapsch; Roche and Rogowski captain the Friars.
The team had a great playoff run to build off of. Fenwick, which hosted a regional and sectional,started hot with three wins by a 16-1 margin.
A big 1-0 win over Payton in the sectional title match led to a showdown with De La Salle in the Brooks Supersectional.
After a 0-0 tie through 100 minutes, the Friars previaled 4-2 in PKs to advance to the Final Four and soon brought home state hardware.
In the Class AA semifinals, the Friars took a 1-0 halftime lead over defending champion Triad, but the Knights forced extra time and scored twice to claim a 3-1 victory. The Friars then lost 3-0 to Deerfield in the third place match.
The team brought home the program's fourth overall state trophy and first since 2013, when coach Robert Watson led the school to its best state showing, a third place Class AA finish.
Blazer, who also coaches the school's boys team and entered his third girls season with a 21-11-4 mark, was the head coach of DePaul University's men's program for 17 seasons from 2001-2017.
The veteran coach and his assistants David Hartsfield, Dan Hussey and Sheila Regan have overseen the development of varsity rookies: senior goalkeeper Morgan Fisher; junior midfielder Susie Shank: and sophomore midfielders Emma Maria Bassett, Claire Kapsch and Kiera Kapsch.
Four freshmen made their high school debuts on the big squad: midfielders Mary Brunick and Stephanie Gonzalez, forward Lola Martinez and goalkeeper Margaret Price.
After the slow start,Fenwick turned heads. The Friars went 1-0-2 in the third week of the season.
The squad opened Girls Catholic Athletic Conference Red Division play with a 2-2 draw at Mother McAuley on March 28, rallying from a 2-0 halftime deficit against a Mighty Macs team that entered the match 4-0-0. Shank had a goal and an assist, while Roche added a goal.
The Friars recorded their first victory March 30 when they claimed a 3-0 road win over University (Chicago). Grace Kapsch hit for a hat-trick after assists from Brunick, Dvorak and Shank. Hyland earned a 10-save shutout.
On April 2, played to a 1-1 home draw with Deerfield, which was ranked eighth in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25 at the time, in a rematch of last year's third place game
Roche scored a first alf goal to give the Friars the early lead. Hyland made six saves in the opening half and Price added five more in the final half.
Grace Kapsch, who scored the state semifinal goal against Triad, leads the Friars with five goals. Roche has a pair, and Shank has one tally. Shank is tops on the team with three assists. Brunick, Dvorak and Rogowski have one assist each.
"We showed a lot of determination being down to an undefeated McAuley team to record the 2-2 tie," Blazer said. "The 3-0 result over University was a result of better team defending and goalkeeping and a hat-trick by junior captain Grace Kapsch.
“And the 1-1 tie against ranked Deerfield showed that we can compete and play while we are learning."
The team has been out of match play since the Deerfield draw. That long stretch ended when it returned to action against Homewood-Flossmoor in its Body Armor opener April 15. The Friars posted a 4-1 win which earned a 3:45 p.m. slot Sunday vs. Jones. A second tournament win puts them in a championship matchup April 23.
Fenwick hosts Downers Grove North on April 18. Afterward, the Friars take part in the prestigious Naperville Invitational where they'll meet ranked foes Hinsdale Central and New Trier.
After playing in Bettendorf, Iowa, on April 27 and 29, Fenwick plays three of its last five regular-season matches against conference foes.
"We are a team in transition from last season to this season and overall have many freshmen, sophomores and juniors who are transitioning to varsity soccer," Blazer said. "It’s a coachable group with a lot of potential.
"We have a very challenging schedule with a lot of top teams, but at the same time a lot of fun as the girls are finding ways to improve."
His charges are ready as they ostensibly start a second season.
“I do believe the break will provide us with some perspective,” Blazer said. “We are just getting started with the process of learning about each other, learning about our new leadership group. “
“I am very excited to see how this will go,” Roche said about the Friars jumping right into a tournament after their break. “I think this will get us back into the swing of things.”
She said that after the state tournament run last spring, her team gained “in confidence and team chemistry.
“I think it set the standard for a lot of girls, and we are very excited to see what will happen this year and next.
“I like how we play for each other, not ourselves, and how we are all very good friends. I like how we are aggressive and have good energy as well.”
The upcoming schedule will help created a battle-tested Fenwick club ready for the Class AA playoffs.
“This year’s team is ... just starting to hit its stride,” Blazer said. “We are aware of the many challenges ahead, but also aware of the opportunity.”