WEST CHICAGO -- Hannah Blaha was stuck sitting and watching last year.
The St. Francis senior was sidelined when her Spartans beat Wheaton Academy in the regular-season and then lost to the Warriors five days later in the postseason.
But Tuesday night, she was everywhere she needed to be against Wheaton Academy.
The goalkeeper held her own in the net, rejecting shots when needed in a strong, crowded defensive-effort in a 1-0 Metro Suburban Conference Blue Division road victory.
“I honestly love these games because there’s so much energy coursing through everyone,” she said. “This is my first time shutting them out. As a sophomore we won 2-1. Last year, I was injured, so this felt very good.”
St. Francis (5-4-0, 4-0-x) had limited chances but was able to make the most of one -- thanks to a great effort from junior midfielder Sophia Roszkowski in the 37th minute.
With Wheaton Academy on the attack, a pass from junior forward Eva DeSouza barely missed slashing senior Haley Serna.
St. Francis countered and worked the ball the entire length of the field. The charge ended when Roszkowski received a ball from freshman Megan Maertens before masterfully burying a 15-yard shot inside the far post with 3:35 remaining in the first half.
Roszkowski shot from a spot on the west side of the field near a cold, tightly packed and vocal section of Wheaton Academy fans. She acknowledged It isn’t the most pleasant area for a visiting rival.
“It’s a very passionate student section, if you will,” she said. “There’s a lot of yelling. I try to not play on their side, but I did for a little bit and blocked it out.”
Just like Blaha did.
“I zoned everything out, including the fans,” she said. “I just like, focus in and follow the ball, and I direct my team. It’s kind of a flow almost. My brain shuts off. My body takes over, and I just react.”
Blaha and Roszkowski, who are listed on the recent Chicagoland Soccer Players to Watch list, shared MVP of the Match honors.
Wheaton Academy (6-5-0, 3-1-x) responded strongly to falling behind but was unable to finish. Rebecca Schulenburg had a chance to pull the Warriors even with a free kick with just under two minutes remaining before halftime, but Blaha was there to clean it up.
Blaha and her teammates did a lot of cleaning up the rest of the game, surviving the final 40 minutes to earn the clean-sheet and remain undefeated in conference -- oh, and to earn bragging rights in the final regular-season conference match against the rivals.
“The last 20 minutes it was just kind of kickball and everything was just long, and we had to get it out,” St. Francis senior defender Ada Suriano said. “Our goalie had some great saves. I think we all worked together to get them off their game a bit. We all kept each other in the game.”
Suriano transferred to St. Francis last year, so she didn't necessarily get the rivalry element of the match. She certainly understands it now.
“I was hearing all these things about how we didn’t like them very much, and they don’t like us,” she said. “We won in conference last year but we lost to them in the playoffs so it was a big win for us tonight.”
The Spartans didn’t utilize their regular lineup in an 8-0 victory over Chicago Christian on April 20, so they hadn’t really played together since a 7-0 loss to Naperville North on April 12. It took some time to shed some rust on Tuesday.
“We crawled back into the first half,” St. Francis coach Jim Winslow said. “The first 15 minutes they were all over us and the next 10 minutes we kind of got back into the game. Then the last 15 we were pretty good. You could tell we were rusty and hadn’t played in (13 days).”
The second half was truly a battle between the Spartans defense and Wheaton Academy’s constant attack in pursuit of the equalizer.
“To be frank, I don’t think we ever really got into the game in the second half,” Winslow said. “We had no opportunities on goal so they played well. And we were trying some things.
“With the injuries we’re still experimenting with what do on top. So, credit to (Wheaton Academy). They deserved at least a tie. Their best shot was probably the dead ball that Hannah (Blaha) saved to put over the crossbar.”
Rebecca Schulenburg, a Chicagoland Soccer Player to Watch, was heavily involved in Wheaton Academy’s efforts to break through offensively. She sent in a cross with 33 minutes left that junior Anna Africa just couldn’t quite get to right in front of the net. About five minutes later Schulenburg fired in a shot that Blaha fumbled a bit, but the Warriors were unable to capitalize on a second-chance opportunity.
Fionna Davis, another Chicagoland Soccer Player to Watch, got deep into the box a couple of times, but shots remained elusive, including one opportunity with a bouncing ball that by the time it was settled, defenders had collapsed together and rejected any potential chance.
“We had possession and team chemistry. But we had one tiny mistake, and they capitalized,” Schulenburg said. “It was a super-exciting game to play in. Then the game ends, and it’s devastating.”
Defeats can crush a team. This is one that should inspire the Warriors. They played extremely well and met the cruel side of soccer, a side that anyone that’s played The Beautiful Game for any amount of time has experienced.
And there’s a huge difference between being shutout and not creating chances, and being dangerous throughout a match but being shutout.
“We’re almost all juniors with some freshmen and sophomores, and a lot of us haven’t played together for long,” DeSouza said. “We’ve got players who have transferred and people though JV, so we’re still learning how to play together. The chemistry right now is so much better. The confidence is so much better. I’m so excited for what’s in store. We’ve have built a lot and come a long way, so this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
The Warriors may have come up short this time, but they’re coming away stronger.
“Soccer is a strong mental game, and I’ve struggled with that in the past with confidence,” said Schulenburg. “It’s something I really try to work on.”
Her mental care tool box includes supplication.
“Prayer is a big one,” Schulenburg said. “God definitely gives me the strength to do this. I have breathing exercises I do. It’s a mental mindset.
“I have to get out of it or it’s bad for mental health. I put a lot into soccer. If a game goes bad like this, I try not to get in my head as best as possible, because it can go downhill and affect performance next time.”
If anything, Schulenburg and the Warriors are ready to get back to work and focus on what’s next: Marian Central at home on Thursday night.
“Praying and working hard like this makes me want to practice harder and makes me want to do finishing,” Schulenburg said. “I was doing it last Friday and hitting the net. I want to go back and do that and keep finishing. It’s not good to win every time, because I wouldn’t have the same drive as I do after a loss.”
The team will push past the disappointment.
“I think we have some great finishers that have gained confidence as the season has gone on,” Wheaton Academy coach Maria Selvaggio said. “But (St. Francis) has seven or eight players behind the ball so it’s hard to finish when the box is crowded.
“It’s partly the composure to get on top of the ball when a cross comes in. ... We have a lot to learn about little technical things to put our finishes away, because I feel like we had more of them and the results could’ve been different.”
Results from future matchups between St. Francis and Wheaton Academy will be few and far between. The visitors, whose school is only seven miles away, are leaving the Metro Suburban Conference for the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference next school year.
The playoffs may be the only time the schools meet again. That could happen this year – tournament schedules come out Thursday. Stay tuned.
GK: Hannah Blaha
D: Alyssa Suriano
D: Stephanie Sullivan
D: Ada Suriano
D: Ella Schroeder
MF: Shannon Brown
MF: Sophia Roszkowski
MF: Clare Andrzejewski
MF: Carley Sitar
F: Ella Wozniak
F: Paige Chrustowski
GK: Noelle Niekamp
D: Lexi Rojek
D: Jillian Paulson
D: Haleigh Manske
D: Britta Love
MF: Katelyn Schoepke
MF: Hannah Lindberg
MF: Rebecca Schulenburg
F: Fiona Davis
F: Eva DeSouza
F: Anna Africa
Chicagoland Soccer MVPs of the Match: Sophia Roszkowski, St. Francis, jr., MF; Hannah Blaha, St. Francis, sr., GK
St. Francis: Sophia Roszkowsk (Megan Maertens), 3:35 remaining