ARLINGTON HEIGHTS -- Benet overcame a less than sparkling start to its league contest Tuesday night but breathed easier when Chloe Sentman fired home a magnificent game-winner to defeat host Saint Viator at Morris Stadium on the campus of Forest View Educational Center.
The win helped manager Gerard Oconer’s club build a likely uncatchable lead in the East Suburban Catholic Conference. Only Nazareth can stop the Redwings (9-1-0, 5-0-0) from an undefeated run.
"We were much too frantic at the start of the game because of the way Saint Viator came out aggressively, and with the pressure they put on the ball," began Oconer.
"We had to get used to a faster speed of play than our last three previous games, (where) we were not really challenged.
"I believe we were so focused on starting the game with a lot of energy, that it caused us to play (rushed) rather than play quicker.
"After the first 15 minutes, we finally settled down, and I thought controlled the majority of the rest of the game."
The previous games Oconer spoke of were wins over Plainfield East and league foes Joliet Catholic and Marian to the tune of a 19-0 goal-differential.
Reese MacDonald and Sadie Sterbenz thought their side had too much nervous energy and didn’t play up to their standards.
MacDonald, industrious, intense and creative, helped inspire the Redwings’ attack in the middle of the park. Sterbenz coupled interceptions and crunching tackles with exceptional awareness to keep her side strong in front of keeper Shannon Clark.
"(They) put a lot of pressure on us right from the start, and we didn’t respond well,” Sterbenz said. “Our passing was not very good. The ball was all over the place, and we were just too frantic for whatever reason."
"It (did) take us awhile to settle in,” said MacDonald. “When we finally did, I felt like we had almost all of the play and possession, and created good chances. But their keeper made some great saves to help them out."
Saint Viator keeper Kyli Ziebka, who shared Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match honors with Benet sophomore midfielder Keira Petrucelli, - was a sensational shot-stopper. The sophomore took at least three out of the back of her net to keep her club in the game.
"Kyli is a great story," began Lions manager Byron DeLeon.
"She only began playing the position last year for us as a freshman, then moved to the FC United club during the offseason to work non-stop at getting better. We feel very fortunate to have her back (there) for us and doing what she did tonight."
After the visitors weathered the early storm of Saint Viator's pressure and an inability to hold possession, the quintet of Johnna Caliendo, Anna Casmere, Petrucelli, MacDonald and freshman Ivana Vukas came alive.
Vukas, who leads the club with eight goals, saw a chance on frame saved by Ziebka, the first of six Benet shots she denied in the scoreless first period.
The visitors were slowed at times by the high, tight line the Lions invoked along the back. That resulted in the assistant referees raising offsides flag on six occasions, three on either side of the halves.
"I really feel like our pressure and ball-winning success is the best Benet has seen this year," boldly stated DeLeon, who kept fresh legs on the pitch throughout the contest to maintain the Lions non-stop work rate, particularly in the middle of the park.
"Our plan was to come out and pressure the ball all over field, just never stop for 80 minutes. I feel like we showed we can play with great teams like Benet," said junior Kiley Wrzos, who played the six with plenty of energy. That was especially needed when the Benet attack was in high gear.
Benet’s Annie Fitzgerald was allowed enough time and space to tee-up a left-footed smash in the 15th minute, which forced Ziebka to make the first of her brilliant first half saves.
On the ensuing corner, MacDonald just missed heading home a Rachel Burns serve.
In the 30th minute, Ziebka was at it again. This time she turned around a Vukas blast with a late, glove save.
Caliendo suffered the same fate as Fitzgerald and Vukas, after Petrucelli set the sophomore free two minutes later.
"Saint Viator put a lot of high pressure on the ball tonight and was aggressive on nearly every 50/50 ball,” said Oconer. “But it was their keeper who kept them in the game by making several crucial saves."
Ziebka received some help from Josephine Westerkamp moments later when the alert senior tackled Rania Fikri before she was able to get into the Lions back.
Saint Viator's Molly Craig blocked a pair of close-range attempts just before the intermission to end the first half on a high note.
"Their keeper made some great saves tonight, but we'll need to be better in the final third," said MacDonald.
Added Oconer: "We need to show more composure when we get inside the box; do a better job of getting shots on target, while being much more aggressive attacking loose balls in front of the goal."
The Redwings, who are ranked 12th in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, threatened right off the second half whistle with a deep throw and the sixth of their nine corners on the night.
After Saint Viator attempted to clear the area, Sentman settled a ball from Vukas at the near touchline. After two touches toward the middle, she unloaded an unstoppable left-footed, 22-yard smash that found the far inside netting at 42 minutes.
"Chloe is a very composed and technical player, who just returned from a concussion a little more than a week ago,” Oconer said. “It was that composure under pressure that we needed more of from the rest of the team tonight."
Sentman's clinical finish was just what the doctor ordered. Benet ramped up the pressure on the home side, which had done well to keep it a goal-less match for more than 40 minutes.
The Sentman strike inspired a Redwings attack that was itching to impose itself on the proceedings and press for a second goal.
A Vukas snap-shot from 25 yards was saved by Ziebka two minutes before Petrucelli headed wide. Then Casmere went wide of the back post after she was sent through with a superb diagonal early ball from Petrucelli.
As the home side sat back a little more and looked to surprise in the counter up-top with Allison Konopka and Jenna Caputo, the Redwings owned the first 20 minutes of the second period.
The visitors strung together several six- and seven-pass completions, pressed and pressed some more as their opponents defense creaked under the weight of the Redwings persistent and aggressive attack.
In the later stages, play became a little chippy and frantic as each side knew of the importance of the next score.
Saint Viator earned a corner off some nice combination work by Monica Correa and Caputo, but could not find the equalizer. On the other end of the park, Ziebka ventured far off her line to save a wicked attempt from Casmere, who ran down a long punt up the left side from Clark.
"We played much better soccer in the second half, but it wasn't what it needed to be for the entire half," said Sterbenz, who will play next fall at Middle Tennessee State.
Saint Viator's Correa raced forward on a couple of occasions as the sophomore looked to get something of quality at Clark, but Sterbenz, Bailey Abbott, Nora Hansen and Sentman held firm during the final few minutes to insure victory.
"Bailey, Sadie, and the rest of our backline did a great job of keeping everything in front of them to help us get the result we came here for," said MacDonald.
"I liked the way we moved the ball, and created a number of quality chances in front of their goal,” said Oconer. “I was happy we were able to minimize the number of dangerous opportunities they had offensively."
Both teams head to the Naperville Invitational for a pair of games to end the week.
Benet opens pool play Friday against Oswego.
Saint Viator (5-4-0, 1-1-0) travels to meet second-ranked Barrington (7-0-1) at 5 p.m. Friday.
"I am very proud of the effort the girls put forth tonight," said DeLeon.
"To come out and play so well against a very good opponent like Benet says so much about this team. We've upgraded our schedule this season to get us ready for the postseason. With Barrington, and other really good teams ahead of us, we should be in position to compete with anyone in our sectional."
The Lions will compete in the Class AA Deerfield Sectional, where the host Warriors will likely be anointed as the top seed. Lake Forest and Carmel will also be in the mix.
Carmel (5-3-1, 1-1-0) will host the Lions on April 25.
G- Shannon Clark
D- Chloe Sentman
D- Sadie Sterbenz
D- Bailey Abbott
D- Nora Hansen
M- Reese MacDonald
M- Keira Petrucelli
M- Rania Fikri
F- Anna Casmere
F- Ivana Vukas
F- Johnna Caliendo
Saint Viator (4-4-2)
G- Kyli Ziebka
D- Megan Anderson
D- Megan McLaughlin
D- Josephine Westerkamp
D- Molly Craig
M- Kiley Wrzos
M- Bella Scheidecker
M- Monica Correa
M- Ella Dean
F- Allison Konopka
F- Jenna Caputo
Chicagoland Soccer MVPs of the Match: Keira Petrucelli, so., MF, Benet; Kyli Ziebka, so., GK, Saint Viator
Referee: Mike Moore
Benet: Sentman (Vukas), 42'
Saint Viator: 1
Saint Viator: 2
Saint Viator: 1
Saint Viator: 4
Saint Viator: 0
Saint Viator: 0