NAPERVILLE – Everyone knows you can’t leave St. Charles North star Bella Najera open.
It turns out not marking her teammate, Juliana Park, well that’s a mistake too, especially on a counterattack.
Naperville Central found that out the hard way in the opening minute of its Naperville Invitational quarterfinal Thursday night at Memorial Stadium.
The Redhawks attacked in waves off the opening kickoff, but didn’t get back fast enough, or in great enough numbers, when the North Stars repulsed their initial foray.
Two of Naperville Central’s midfielders got caught up the field and Najera made them pay, passing the ball to Park, who ripped a wicked 30-yard shot past Naperville Central goalkeeper Emma Dram just 55 seconds into the match.
“I was trying to dribble, and I saw a bunch of defenders around me,” Najera said. “I saw ‘Parky’ wide open on top of the box, and I know she has that great shot. So I just passed it to her.
“I trusted her, and she made a great shot.”
It was the fourth goal of the season for Park, who has been known to launch from distance.
“Bella is a really good player,” Park said. “It’s fun to combine with her on the field.
“They didn’t step to me, so I just saw the goal open. I was like, ‘I’ll just shoot it.’”
Park’s early goal set the tone for St. Charles North, which went on to an action-packed 3-1 win.
“She’s definitely capable of pulling the trigger from the outside,” St. Charles North coach Brian Harks said. “Bella made a nice pass.
“Park had a little bit of space, and she put a great hit on frame. The ball knuckled quite a bit and seemed to have the keeper confused. It was a … fantastic way to start the game.”
The North Stars (11-2-1), who are ranked 11th in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, advance to face no. 2 St. Charles East (16-0-0) in the semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday at Memorial Stadium. The two were supposed to meet in the Rose Augsburg-Drach Invitational title match March 25, but it was a casualty of the weather.
No. 3 Barrington (11-0-2) plays no. 9 Naperville North (9-3-1) in the first semifinal at 5 p.m.
Najera, the Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match, finished with a goal and two assists.
“It was super exciting,” Najera said. “We obviously played them before, and we tied 0-0 (April 8). We really wanted to come out and prove ourselves.
“We came out with a lot of momentum. ‘Parky’ scored right away, which is awesome, and we just tried to dominate the game, keep possession, win the air balls, which I think we did good at.
“I feel like we had more intensity and fire to us.”
That was true throughout the match, which featured frequent end-to-end action. The 10th-ranked Redhawks (6-2-1) actually held a 17-15 advantage in shots. The two teams combined for 17 shots on frame, which doesn’t include the 32-yard drive from Naperville Central’s Natalie Jordan which struck the crossbar, or the 20-yard shot from teammate Megan Norkett which St. Charles North goalkeeper Kara Claussner saved into the post.
“We did not execute in the final third, which is a huge thing. And there were some sequences where I’m like, ‘How did we not score?’” Naperville Central coach Troy Adams said. “We hit a post; we hit a crossbar, (Claussner) made an unbelievable save on Megan.
“This is going to sound odd, but sometimes you just get unlucky. There is nothing you can about it, but we can get better on that.”
Adams’ troops didn’t lack for opportunities. They had plenty of chances inside the box, but Claussner denied Bella Brozek twice with nifty kick saves, and Jordan saw open shots go over the crossbar.
Claussner came up big a second time on Norkett early in the second half. The Northwestern-bound forward made a sensational 65-yard run up the field into the left side of the box and ripped a left-footed shot which was ticketed for the top shelf. But Claussner leaped and got a hand on the shot to punch it over the endline near the left post.
Five minutes later, Najera, who had converted a 29-yard free kick to give the North Stars a 2-0 lead at the 3:23 mark of the first half, notched her second assist of the evening on a lead pass to Laney Stark on the right wing.
Stark dribbled into the box and scored on a 15-yard shot to increase the lead to 3-0 with 31:50 to go.
It was an impressive margin, one the Redhawks rarely have found themselves on the wrong end of in recent years. It was a satisfying sight for Harks, who wasn’t ready to celebrate after Park’s early strike.
“I’ve been a part of games where when you score early it works in your favor, and games when you score early it puts added pressure and just wakes the other team up a little bit,” Harks said. “But I was proud of the way that our girls found the early goal but then stayed dialed in and kept grinding and just didn’t settle for one.”
Norkett finally got one back for the Redhawks when she received the ball 30 yards from the goal on the right wing, turned and raced through the defense into the box and broke up Claussner’s shutout bid with a perfectly placed 12-yard shot just inside the left post with 15:58 left.
But it wasn’t enough. The Redhawks mustered only three more shots, two of which were stopped by Claussner, who dropped and then picked up Norkett’s 30-yard free kick with 13:00 left and caught Brozek’s long shot with 5:30 to go.
“Overall, I think we played well as a team,” Norkett said. “We have places we need to learn from, and that was a very physical game.
“We need to make sure we can fight back and win our 50/50 battles. I think that we can learn from that and come back tomorrow.”
The Redhawks need more players who can consistently finish in order to take some of the pressure off of Norkett, who has endured double-teams and physical play.
“There were moments in the first half where we reacted and didn’t anticipate,” Adams said. “When you get to the high school or college level, and even the pros, the separation is not physical; it’s not technical. It’s that mental part, thinking faster than the ball is being played, anticipating rather than reacting.
“We did a little too much reacting tonight and just not enough anticipating. But (the North Stars) did a good job of getting balls into dangerous places.”
“St. Charles North played physical. They’re a good team that plays physical and when you put those two things together, you’re going to have a lot of success.”
While the Redhawks will finish the tournament Friday night with a consolation game against Fremd at Naperville North, the North Stars hope to continue their success in what figures to be a terrific semifinal matchup against St. Charles East.
“I’m super excited because we play them Tuesday, too, for conference,” Najera said. “We just want to keep winning, keep this momentum going.”
St. Charles North
GK: Kara Claussner
D: Abby Sims
D: Lauren Balster
D: Abby Vichich
D: Chloe Kirsten
M: Kayla Floyd
M: Juliana Park
M: Bella Najera
F: Rian Spaulding
F: Sophie Kirsten
F: Laney Stark
GK: Emma Dram
D: Chloe Mowry
D: Taylor Walk
D: Anna Sadowski
D: Ella Burke
M: Lauren Thorne
M: Natalie Jordan
M: Rebecca Ruggiero
F: Bella Brozek
F: Megan Norkett
F: Malia Shen
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Bella Najera, sr., MF, St. Charles North
St. Charles North: Juliana Park (Bella Najera) 39:05 remaining
St. Charles North: Najera 3:23 remaining
St. Charles North: Laney Stark (Najera) 31:50 remaining
Naperville Central: Megan Norkett 15:58 remaining