OAK PARK -- When a team with a lot of new players is struggling to put things together, it's interesting to see if a quick run of success could turn out to be a catalyst to send its season in a completely different trajectory.
That's what Loyola hopes is the case after its 5-1 win over Oak Park and River Forest at historic Oak Park Stadium on Friday. After the Ramblers third match in four days, the team outscored opponents 9-1 during that span to put together their first winning streak of the season.
With the victory, the Ramblers (6-4-3) went 2-0-0 to win Pool H of the Naperville Invitational. That included a 2-0 win Thursday versus Bolingbrook in a match at New Trier that only lasted one half due to inclement weather.
Loyola advances to a April 27 quarterfinals when it travels to Barrington to face the Fillies in a 7 p.m. match.
Barrington, which is ranked second in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, tied Downers Grove South 0-0 Saturday in another match that ended at half due to weather. The Fillies advanced to the quarterfinals based on its goal-differential advantage from its 5-0 victory over Saint Viator.
The Ramblers enjoyed a very successful 2022 season with a 17-5-1 record, their 13th-consecutive Girls Catholic Athletic Conference title and the co-championship of the Lou Malnati's Deep Dish Classic.
Loyola recorded 13 shutouts and three of their five defeats came against teams that reached the Class 3A Final Four. Two came against eventual fourth place finisher Evanston, including a sectional defeat, and the other occurred against runnerup Barrington.
Loyola graduated 15 players from that squad and only returned nine varsity individuals. So, it's not surprising it’s taking coach Shannon Hartinger and her staff some time to fit new pieces together so that the program can again finish strong.
On Tuesday, the Ramblers moved into first place in the GCAC Red Division with a 2-0 home victory over Mother McAuley. Prior to the current win streak, Loyola hadn't been able to collect consecutive victories. However, it did go 2-0-2 from March 27 to April 10 when it beat Saint Ignatius and Glenbrook South and tied Evanston and Lake Forest.
The Ramblers five goals Friday was a season-high. The nine goals in the last three matches were one more than they scored in their first 10 contests, in which they were shut out five times (0-3-2).
Oak Park and River Forest (4-5-1) also entered the match on a high note, boasting its first win streak with a 3-1 victory over Downers Grove South and an 8-0 West Suburban Conference Silver Division triumph over Proviso West. The games also marked the first time this season that the Huskies had scored more than two goals in a match.
After winning 2-1 over Fenwick in their opener, the squad slumped to an 0-4-1 run.
Loyola sophomore Grace Lynch and senior Emmy Christopher highlighted Friday’s win with two goals each. Sophomore Mia Wisler also found the net. Seniors Tess O'Bryan and Emily Pikarski, junior Sadie Merriott and sophomore Lilianna Ciesla created assists.
Lynch scored the match's first two goals before the Oak Park and River Forest got a goal from senior Kiki Leman off assists from junior Keira Kleidon and sophomore Malie Cassel to close to within 2-1 at the intermission.
After Wisler returned the momentum to Loyola with her goal 15 minutes into the final half, Christopher added the last two scores on a day when Oak Park and River Forest junior goalkeeper Jackie Bollinger came up with several big stops to prevent a larger disadvantage.
The Huskies bounced back from the tough loss with a 3-1 win over Bolingbrook on Saturday at New Trier in their final Naperville Invitational group-play match. The result gave Oak Park and River Forest three wins in its last four matches.
Two-goal scorers Lynch and Christopher shared the Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match honor with senior midfielder Emma Shaffer, who dictated the Ramblers' season-best scoring attack while also stymying the Huskies' efforts to win a third-straight match.
"We've talked about how we've had some really good performances, but our results haven't necessarily matched the performances because we haven't been able to score," Hartinger said. "But tonight, it all came together. I'm really proud of the girls because of the intensity and the confidence that they played with. And even after we gave up a goal, we kept pushing and fighting and found a way to put a few more in the net.
"I was really happy in particular with Emma Shaffer in the midfield. I thought she did a nice job of disrupting play but also keeping us connected and possessing the ball. And I thought that our backline of Sadie Merriott, Emily Pikarski, Elianna Seeley, Mia Wisler and Caroline Southwell did a fantastic job.
"We talked to the girls about just sticking to our plan and continuing to use all of our training sessions and games to continue to improve, and I think we've done that. At times, I think we've been frustrated, but that's never stopped us from working, I think it just made us want to work harder because we've seen the potential that we have.
"So, I'm really proud of the girls for the effort that they've had, including last night under really tough weather conditions. They've persevered through some adversity, which I appreciate. And as we're coming together, we're having a lot of fun, and I think that's making us play better on the field."
Lynch set the tone for the Ramblers in the early going, creating an early corner kick that senior Seeley placed into the box. After Ciesla got a touch on the ball she sent it to Lynch, who connected from close range in the fifth minute to put her team in front for good.
The next few minutes featured good attempts from seniors Ella Couri and O'Bryan and from Merriott for Loyola and by Leman and sophomore Abby Cockerill for Oak Park and River Forest.
Loyola increased its lead to 2-0 when Merriott and O'Bryan got touches on the ball and directed it to Lynch, who connected again from just in front in the 28th minute.
"It was a really exciting game," Shaffer said. "I think that our team brought high intensity, and we were able to finish. ... We've been trying really hard to find ways to score, and I think today we found it. We worked really well together, and we played smart but also intense. I think that helped lead to the goals that we scored.
"(This week) brought our confidence up and today everyone played with confidence. … I think in each game, we slowly built up our confidence and our skill, and today we saw good results. I like our community and our intensity and just our ability to adapt to losing 15 seniors."
Oak Park and River Forest pulled to within 2-1 in the 36th minute when junior Keira Kleidon started a scoring sequence with a pass to Cassel. She directed the ball to Leman, who connected from close range. The one-goal difference stood for 20 minutes.
Shortly after the break, a great scoring chance came from Lynch, but Bollinger denied the the shot and her attempt at a hat-trick. It was the first of many big stops that the Huskies junior keeper made throughout the remainder of the match.
"They're a very-disciplined team, and you have to give it to them since they're a powerhouse," Oak Park and River Forest coach Christine Johnston said of the Ramblers. "We've never played them before, so we didn't know what to expect. We knew that they would be physical and disciplined, and I think that we put up a good fight.
"I think we outplayed them the last 10 minutes of the first half when that goal went in, and we were hoping that energy would transfer to the second half.
"When they scored (the third goal), they got their adrenaline going. We were hurting a little bit keeping the positivity going and making sure that we kept playing as hard as we can.
“Both of our goalkeepers (including senior Violet Allgood) have been training so hard. (Keeper Jackie Bollinger) has been working hard. She kept us in the game and her saves were phenomenal. The two biggest things she's been working on are coming off of her line and the punch over the net, and she did both of those very well tonight.
The coach likes the makeup of her team.
"They play for each other, and they're coachable and they always give insight about what's going on. Our motto this year is, 'I am because we are,'” she said. “They're not individuals. They need to play as a team, and they know that. And when we play together as a team, we are a force to be reckoned with."
After a back-and-forth sequence where the ball pretty much remained in the midfield, Loyola regained the momentum when Wisler fired in a liner from the side from 20 yards that found the upper corner in the 55th minute to give her team its second two-goal advantage.
The Ramblers kept the pressure up as Seeley bounced a corner kick off of the post and Pikarski's long-range free kick was deflected away by Bollinger. The attacking visitors connected again in the 64th minute when Pikarski sent a pass to Christopher, who completed a short attempt.
Not too long after that, Pikarski sent in another long free kick that bounced off of the crossbar, and Christopher fired in a liner that Bollinger thwarted. But Christopher tallied again in the 72nd minute when she got to a loose ball in front of the net and converted to cap the scoring.
"In the past week, and especially for this tournament, we've been able to finish and score a lot more goals and we've been playing better together up-top," Christopher said.
"This was definitely an increase from the beginning of the season. We're finally starting to play well as a team, and that's definitely good going into playoffs. We're very close as a team, and we're all very good friends which definitely shows on the field."
Loyola hosts Providence on Tuesday in a league match before resuming the Naperville Invitational against Barrington on Thursday.
Oak Park and River Forest plays at Downers Grove North in a West Suburban Conference Silver Division match on Tuesday before facing Waubonsie Valley on Thursday in the invitational’s consolation pool.
GK - Ellie Bradley
D - Mia Wisler
D - Sadie Merriott
D - Emily Pikarski
D - Elianna Seeley
MF - Emma Shaffer
MF - Ella Couri
MF - Grace Lynch
MF - Claire Brady
F - Lilianna Ciesla
F - Emmy Christopher
Oak Park and River Forest
GK - Jackie Bollinger
D - Isabella Kalina
D - Gweny Lopez
D - Kylie Houghton
D - Sophia Henry
MF - Cate Ryan
MF - Addison Bliss
MF - Mia Dunavan
MF - Malie Cassel
F - Abby Cockerill
F - Kiki Leman
Chicagoland Soccer MVPs of the Match: Emmy Christopher, sr., F, Loyola; Grace Lynch, so., MF, Loyola; Emma Shaffer, sr., MF, Loyola
LOY - Grace Lynch (Lilianna Ciesla), 5'
LOY - Lynch (Sadie Merriott, Tess O'Bryan), 28'
OPRF - Kiki Leman (Keira Kleidon, Malie Cassel), 36'
LOY - Mia Wisler (unassisted), 55'
LOY - Emmy Christopher (Emily Pikarski), 64'
LOY - Emmy Christopher (unassisted), 72'