NAPERVILLE – St. Charles North junior Juliana Park has proven she can score early, or late.
But she’s always on time.
Park, who scored for the second-straight night, bagged the game-winning goal for the North Stars, who squeaked past cross-town rival and previously unbeaten St. Charles East 2-1 in a Naperville Invitational semifinal Friday at Naperville Central’s Memorial Stadium.
The victory advanced St. Charles North (11-2-1) into Saturday’s 9 a.m. championship match against Barrington (12-0-2), which edged Naperville North on penalty kicks in the early semifinal.
“It felt really good,” Park said of her decisive strike, which came with 2:15 left in regulation. “Recently I’ve been really focusing in on bringing good energy to the team and working together.”
Park scored the first goal of Thursday’s 3-1 quarterfinal win over Naperville Central just 55 seconds into the match. Afterward, St. Charles North coach Brian Harks said he’s been involved in games where his team has scored early and others where his team has conceded early.
The latter scenario is what happened Friday, when St. Charles East star Grace Williams fired in her 21st goal of the season a mere 65 seconds after kickoff
“About 24 hours ago you asked about getting an early goal,” Harks said. “I’ve been a part of it on both sides where sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s bad.
“We were on the opposite end of that, and I was super proud of the way that our girls responded. That’s an easy excuse to put your head down and kind of get out of rhythm, especially against a St. Charles East team that doesn’t give you a whole lot.
“They’re super-structured. They’re a really talented group, and they’re very offensive-minded as well. I thought that our backline did a really nice job. Our midfield controlled the game, and our forwards generated a lot for us tonight.”
Williams and Mia Raschke created a few more decent scoring chances for St. Charles East (16-1-0), but the North Stars’ backline was up to the challenge. St. Charles North hung in despite trailing for over 34 minutes.
“After they scored the first goal, we got together and came together as a team,” Park said. “We knew had to keep working, and we knew we could come back and win.”
Senior Sophie Kirsten tied the game at 1-1 at the 4:23 mark of the first half. She netted an easy tap-in on a pass from her sister, Chloe.
“Chloe is obviously is a very good player. She was able to get down the line and beat her defender, and I was wide open,” Sophie Kirsten said. “I screamed for it, and I was able to tap it in.”
The Kirsten sisters have been stalwarts in the starting lineup this season. Sophie plays midfield, and Chloe, who is two years younger, is a defender.
“It’s great,” Sophie Kirsten said. “She’s an amazing player and a great defender.
“She’s got all the hustle in the world, so I know I can trust her back there. That’s great, because she’s also able to find me a lot of times when I check in the middle. Our chemistry is really good.”
That chemistry has helped give the North Stars confidence to win big games even when they are trailing.
The play that led to the game-winner started when the North Stars forced a corner kick, which Park took from the right side. Her high ball to the back post was headed up in the air by Bella Najera and came down on top of the crossbar.
A St. Charles East defender attempted to fully clear the ball out of a crowd inside the six-yard box. An alert Park was lurking on the right side and intercepted it. After taking a touch, she scored on a 12-yard shot.
“Bella put it off the crossbar and then it was a nice job crashing,” Harks said. “They cleared it, and Park was on her toes, ready to go, ready to tuck it away.”
Park described her end role on the play as a clean-up person.
“I saw it hit off of the crossbar, and I was like, ‘Someone has to be there,’” she said. “I was like the garbage man. I just went for it and scored.”
The result snapped the season-opening 16-game winning streak for the Saints.
“It was a good learning experience for us,” St. Charles East coach Vince DiNuzzo said. “I think we’re going to be able to take away a lot from this game and hopefully put our best foot forward and improve.
“It was a back-and-forth game, but I think they deserved the result. If you would have said that someone went through on penalties, that would have been fair, but I also think that at times they were a lot better than we were.
“They had good spells of possession and pressure that kind of put us under some duress. We couldn’t hold the ball for like a 20-minute span, but then we got our feet back under us, created some opportunities.”
For the first time this season, that wasn’t quite good enough.
“When you play in these games, the margin for error is very, very small,” DiNuzzo said. “We made a mistake on a set piece, and they punished us. They deserved to win.”
The loss did have a silver lining for the Saints, who no longer have the pressure of trying for an undefeated season.
“It’s something that’s been kind of weighing on us,” DiNuzzo said. “We’ve been talking about how we need to get this monkey off our back and humanize us a little bit.”
The Saints also don’t have to wait long for a chance to avenge the loss – their next game is against the North Stars on Tuesday in a DuKane Conference showdown on Tri-Cities Night at Batavia. While that will be an important test, DiNuzzo ultimately is looking at a bigger picture – the postseason.
“We get another crack at it,” DiNuzzo said. “But the last seven (games) are the most important, and if we can learn something along the way, that’s fantastic.
“If we can have a good record, that’s awesome too. But we’ve got to prepare for the playoffs and make sure we’re the best version of ourselves.”
While the Saints get the weekend off to rest, the North Stars will have just 12 hours between games before getting a chance to win their first outright Naperville Invitational title. They shared the 2019 crown with Barrington after weather canceled the championship match.
Despite the tight turnaround, Sophie Kirsten said the North Stars will be ready.
“I think our intensity has gone up a lot,” she said. “We’ve really become a more intense and aggressive team that’s been able to fight for every 50/50 ball and win the air game.
“I think that’s turned the tide for us as a team. As long as we keep that up tomorrow, I think we have a great chance of winning.”
St. Charles East
GK: Sidney Lazenby
D: Lauren Silvestri
D: Mackenzie Loomis
D: Amanda Stepien
M: Georggia Oesario
M: Allie Saviano
M: Kara Machala
M: Tia Bernstein
F: Grace Williams
F: Ella Stehman
F: Mia Raschke
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
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Julianna Park, jr. MF, St. Charles North
St. Charles East – Grace Williams 38:53 remaining
St. Charles North – Sophie Kirsten (Chloe Kirsten) 4:23 remaining
St. Charles North – Juliana Park 2:15 remaining