OAK FOREST -- Despite having a squad that features eight freshmen and just four seniors, it seems to be the same old story for coach Rick Prangen's Lemont program this season.
The school with no nickname has definitely made a name for itself in the sport, earning six Class AA trophies since 2009, when it had its best-ever finish by taking second place, through 2018, when it captured its second third place finish.
Prangen, who's coached Lemont's boys teams since 1991 and its girls teams since 1995, is in elite company in victories, joining Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association Hall of Famers Brian Papa and Guy Callipari as the state's only coaches with 400 girls wins and 300 boys wins. He figures to join Papa as the only two in the 400-400 win club later this year.
Since seeing his squad learn valuable lessons in shutout tournament losses to ranked Class 3A squads Lincoln-Way Central, Lincoln-Way East and Lockport, Lemont has been on a roll in South Suburban Conference action. The program is well on its way to adding to its long list of league titles after improving to 6-0-0 (8-4-1 overall) after a 4-0 win Tuesday at Oak Forest.
Lemont has gone 5-0-1 in its last six matches, outscoring opponents by a 29-1 margin. The scoreless draw came against Class 3A Lincoln-Way West on April 22. All the club’s blemishes, which include a 2-1 loss to Plainfield South on March 17, have come against the biggest IHSA division.
The team last played against a Blue Division team on March 28, when it won 5-0 over rival Thornton Fractional United. It has averaged four or more goals in league matches thus far and hosts back-to-back Blue contests against Bremen and Tinley Park on May 2 and 4.
Since its early-season loss to Lemont, TF United has won all seven of its league matches and hosts Tinley Park (6-0-1) in a big divisional match on Thursday in Calumet City.
Lemont hosts Evergreen Park on Thursday, plays at nonconference Glenbard South on Saturday and then closes with four South Suburban matches and one nonconference game before beginning postseason play.
Prangen hopes that his team's strong showings against Class AA opponents helps earn his team a high seed in the Nazareth Sectional, which includes Benet, ranked 15th in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, St. Francis and Wheaton Academy.
In Tuesday's victory, Lemont jumped out to a 2-0 lead midway through the first and added a goal shortly before intermission. The final tally came not long after the final half began. The visitors continued to pepper the Oak Forest goal throughout the rest of the match, but senior goalkeeper Serenity Berrios was able to halt the many attempts that came her way before Lemont collected its seventh shutout, including its fifth in the last six matches.
Senior Suzie Knutte and junior Emma Amberg both secured a goal and assist. Sophomore Ella Simpson and sophomore Yanna Krokos scored, and junior Casey Kittridge added an assist.
Oak Forest (3-10-1, 2-4-1) only managed a couple of intriguing attempts. The Lemont starting defense of senior Nicole Bobcik, juniors Daria Koslosky and Kittridge and freshman Ava DeMaio rarely allowed the Bengals beyond the midfield stripe, let alone threaten starting goalkeeper sophomore Lauren Tracy.
"It was a Tuesday game, two days after prom and playing on the road, so it was a little bit of a challenge," Prangen said. "I thought that we had a good contest on Saturday against Lincoln-Way West. it was an evenly-matched game and was nil-nil, which was good. We're just trying to win a conference title and seeding starts tomorrow for the state tournament. Hopefully we can get a competitive seed which puts us in the position to get ready for the postseason.
"I thought their keeper played well, but I'd just like to see us be more effective in the final third. Against a side when it's a tight game, you're not going to get 20 chances, you'll just get one or two. I'd like to see us a little more proficient at that, I thought that we kept the ball well, and that's good to do on the road. Hopefully we continue to play at a good rate and good speed and get ready for the playoffs."
The veteran Lemont coach believes that his team gained valuable insights in its Class 3A contests.
"I think we learned a lot from the Lockport game, the Lincoln-Way East and Lincoln-Way West games helped us and even the Lincoln-Way Central game, that we got smoked in, helped us," Prangen said. "The hard thing for us to do is to mimic that physicality and speed of play in practice. The only way that you're going to do that is to schedule those teams. I appreciate those teams do that and push us, because we have to get out of our comfort zone.
"We didn't need to be the fastest today. We moved the ball fairly slow, and we still got away with it. We're trying to get to the point where we move the ball quickly, and we're playing quickly and playing physical. I thought we were better out of the air heading the ball, which was a good thing. I think we're still trying to get our midfield down.
"I thought that Paige (Bingen) and Ella had really good games today. They make everything go forward. Emma and Suzie both had good games, and Casey just controlled the ball in the back. Hopefully we can have a good one on Thursday and another good one on Saturday and keep going forward."
Lemont applied pressure from the early stages of the match. Simpson was denied on a pair of attempts, and freshman Chase Bergeson had a shot deflected away. The scoring started when Knutte sent in a pass from the side to the front of the net that found Amberg. She connected in the 13th minute.
After Kittridge sent in a try from the side and also a lined a corner kick to Berrios, Simpson and Amberg were both thwarted by the Bengals keeper.
Lemont kept the pressure on. Kittridge placed a free kick from close to the sideline into the box, and Simpson was there to put in the close-range effort to make it 2-0 in the 20th minute.
Simpson believes that the tough losses and the draw that her team took against the three Lincoln-Way schools and Lockport have been beneficial for them.
"It definitely helped us to figure out what we need to work on as a team," Simpson said. "We've been switching up our formations, and we're just trying to figure out what our strengths and weaknesses are and then work on that during practice throughout the week.
"We definitely have gotten more comfortable with each other and have kind of figured out how we can play off of one another. I like that we're all like best friends."
In the final part of the opening half, Lemont stayed on the attack. Krokos had two shots stopped, Knutte was thwarted on a hard shot and then a short try by a defender. Amberg also had a shot in front of the net that was turned away.
Lemont grabbed its 3-0 halftime advantage in the 37th minute. Amberg passed from the side, and Krokos was there to connect from close range.
"I think that our passing was a lot better today," said Amberg, who shared Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match honors with Knutte. "We worked in our last practice on breaking the backline and getting the ball through for our outside forwards to get crosses in and to get more opportunities.
"I think with us losing those games, it really helped us find out as a team what our weaknesses were, so we've just been focusing on that in practice. I like our chemistry as a group and the way that we're putting in the work in practice and also outside of the practice with team bonding. We have a lot of freshmen on the team so definitely we need to know each other’s skill sets and learn who each of us are and what we're best at."
The visitors closed out the scoring in the 45th minute when Knutte fired in a liner from about 15 yards; it was one of the few shots that was mishandled by the Bengals keeper. Knutte, a Chicagoland Soccer All-State performer a year ago, has become more of a physical force on the field after she decided to wrestle in the winter. She was rewarded for her efforts by qualifying for the IHSA finals in Bloomington.
Amberg, freshman Bella DeMaio, Bobcik, Knutte and Kittridge all had good scoring attempts prior to the match's hour mark. Freshman Lily Crowther, DeMaio, Bobcik and Kittridge continued to threaten the net but Berrios halted everything that came her way to provide the highlight for Oak Forest.
GK - Lauren Tracy
D - Nicole Bobcik
D - Casey Kittridge
D - Daria Koslosky
D - Ava DeMaio
MF - Paige Bingen
MF - Ella Simpson
MF - Chase Bergeson
F - Suzie Knutte
F - Emma Amberg
F - Bella DeMaio
GK - Serenity Berrios
D - Kayla Kelly
D - Maggie Rollins
D - Liz Kneeland
D - Hailee Ruelas
MF - Olivia Baxa
MF - Jenna Cooper
MF - Scarlett Berrios
MF - Maria Carillo
F - Madeline Walsh
F - Hailey Plancarte
Chicagoland Soccer MVPs of the Match: Suzie Knutte, sr., F., Lemont; Emma Amberg, jr., F, Lemont
L - Emma Amberg (Suzie Knutte), 13'
L - Ella Simpson (Casey Kittridge), 20'
L - Yanna Krokos (Amberg), 37'
L - Knutte (unassisted), 45'