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Williams brace paces St. Charles East past Neuqua Valley

By Matt LeCren, 04/22/23, 9:15AM CDT


Undefeated Fighting Saints win Naperville Invitational opener 4-1

NAPERVILLE – If soccer fans want to witness the wizardry of St. Charles East senior forward Grace Williams, they’re going to have to do it this spring or forever regret passing up the chance.

Williams recently decommitted from playing at Wisconsin -Oshkosh. She will attend Kansas, but only as a student.

“I’m not going to play at all,” Williams said. “I’m just going to focus on school and stuff.

“I’m just trying to go all out, end it with a bang.”

The final season of Williams’ soccer career so far has been a series of bangs, including two more tremendous shots which found the back of the net Friday night in a 4-1 victory over Neuqua Valley at the Naperville Invitational.

The goals were the first two of the match and the 17th and 18th of the season for Williams.

“I think she’s scored in every game we’ve played so far,” St. Charles East coach Vince DiNuzzo said. “She’s been very consistent this year.”

So have the Saints (13-0-0), who are ranked fourth in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25. They can advance to the tournament quarterfinals by beating Sandburg (5-8-0) in the final Group D match at noon Saturday at Naperville North.

It all starts with Williams for St. Charles East. She got things rolling against the young but up-and-coming Wildcats, who held the Saints without a shot for the first 20 minutes.

Williams got the ball on the right wing, raced to the top right corner of the box and unleashed a 17-yard rocket under the crossbar.

“It’s incredible, because every time Grace gets the ball, I trust her completely,” St. Charles East defender Mackenzie Loomis said. “I trust her so much, because we practice so much in practice with that.”

Loomis knows all about Williams’ talent because she has to try to contain her in practice. It’s a task few defenders are up to and no team has been able to hold her down for long.

The Saints only had three shots in the first half, but Williams had two of them. Her second attempt made it 2-0 with 1:42 to go before intermission.

Williams again got the ball in space on the right wing, but this time she cut inside and across the box before ripping another right-footed blast. This one went inside the left post.

“Honestly, half the time I’m not sure if it’s going to go in or not,” Williams said. “I just try to aim where I think it’s going to go in and hope for the best.”

Hope, of course, is not a plan when it comes to defending attackers like Williams.

“It was poor defending, especially on the second goal,” Neuqua Valley coach Arnoldo Gonzalez said. “She actually cuts to the inside, and she goes all the way from the right to the left, so she gets a right-footed shot. So, we’re not stepping to the player.”

But the Wildcats (3-5-0) did step up and make things interesting. They came into the game having won their previous two games, including a 2-1 upset win over no. 14 St. Charles North.

“We really know how to keep fighting to the last minute,” Neuqua Valley junior defender Lauren Milani said. “We knew it was going to be a tough game coming in, but we also knew that we weren’t going to give it to them easy. We were going to put up a fight.”

That’s what the Wildcats did. They cut the gap to 2-1 when junior Brianna Clasen made a steal and blasted a 30-yard shot over the head of Saints goalkeeper Sidney Lazenby at the 25:46 mark of the second half. It was the first goal against the Fighting Saints in six games.

“They’ve got a great keeper, and she had made some nice saves early in the first half,” Gonzalez said. “At half I said, ‘Bri, you see it’s a great goalie so if you’re going to beat her it’s got to be upper 90,’ and she did.

“I guess we’ve got to tell her where to hit that ball.”

The rocket from Clasen drew praise from DiNuzzo, and a response from the Saints.

“This is kind of like when we played Wheaton South on Tuesday,” DiNuzzo said. “You leave a bunch of chances out there in the first half, you leave a bunch of chances in the beginning of the second half.  All of a sudden, they get a goal, it’s 2-1 and momentum kind of changes.

“I was happy to see the response after the goal came against us, because that was a great goal they had: 30 yards out; awesome shot inside the post; nothing the keeper could do there.”

The Saints retaliated 10 minutes later, capitalizing off a Kara Machala corner kick which the Wildcats failed to clear. Tatum Smith stepped to the loose ball and beat Neuqua goalkeeper Zoe Fabian, who made five saves to keep her team in it, from eight yards out and a 3-1 lead.

“We got the goal and then we had three opportunities, even at 2-1, where the goalie makes some great saves,” Gonzalez said. “Then they get that corner and again, it was poor defending on our part.

“We had bodies all over it but no clear. What we did is we settled the ball for them, and she came right off the rebound.”

The Wildcats did not get another shot after that and the Saints iced the game when Loomis converted a penalty kick with 11:16 left. Gonzalez disputed the call, saying the St. Charles East player took a dive, but to no avail.

The final goal was immaterial because the Saints locked down on defense in the final 20 minutes. They impressively held talented sophomore striker Selma Larbi to just two shots, both of which came early in the game, and also did a decent job on Clasen.

“Mackenze had (Larbi) and Ella (Stehman) had the task of taking (Clasen), who I felt was probably the most dangerous player tonight,” DiNuzzo said. “And I think the reason (Clasen) is probably the most dangerous is because Mackenzie did such a good job on (Larbi).”

Loomis was satisfied with her performance on Larbi, who had scored twice in Neuqua’s 7-0 win over Sandburg on Thursday.

“Our plan was for me to man mark her the whole time with Lauren (Silvestri) to cover,” Loomis said. “We had (Clasen) covered as well.

“So that was our plan, to kind of shut them down there, deny them entry passes.”

The Saints have regularly done a good job of denying opponents, who have mustered six goals in 13 games against them.

“I feel like with all the games we’ve been having, no matter the competition, it keeps getting better and better,” Loomis said. “We’re getting better in practice, and it shows on the field.”

While Williams is the headliner, the rest of the St. Charles East cast play their roles to a T.

“I think we’re so successful, because of how we play as a team,” Williams said. “I feel like we’re all willing to put our bodies on the line for each other and willing to do anything for each other. And our team chemistry this year is just insane.”

Starting lineups

St. Charles East
GK: Sidney Lazenby
D: Lauren Silvestri
D: Mackenzie Loomis
D: Amanda Stepien
M: Georggia Desario
M: Allie Saviano
M: Kara Machala
M: Tia Bernstein
F: Grace Williams
F: Mia Raschke
F: Ella Stehman
Neuqua Valley
GK: Zoe Fabian
D: Mollie McBrayer
D: Reagan Rushing
D: Mia Wisler
D: Lauren Milani
M: Anna Yuccas
M: Grace Petrina
M: Victoria Jaimes
M: Chloe Orlow
F: Brianna Clasen
F: Selma Larbi
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Grace Williams, sr., F, St. Charles East

Scoring summary

First half
St. Charles East: Grace Williams, 19:36 remaining
St. Charles East: Williams, 1:42 remaining
Second half
Neuqua Valley: Brianna Clasen, 25:46 remaining
St. Charles East: Tatum Smith, 15:01 remaining
St. Charles East: Mackenzie Loomis (PK), 11:16 remaining