A lot of the faces will be new, but one thing will remain the same when Naperville Central travels to Naperville North on Thursday for their annual DuPage Valley Conference showdown.
“Any time you roll out Central and North, it’s going to be a battle,” Naperville Central coach Troy Adams said. “As I always say, it’s the intensity that’s hard to find in other games.”
Among Chicago-area high school rivalries, Adams can think of only two others – Lyons-Hinsdale Central and St. Charles East-St. Charles North – that reach the same plateau and nuances.
“The uniqueness of that intensity comes from so many of the kids growing up together,” Adams said. “Kids play park district in Naperville, so some of the kids have been on the same teams before, and some of them play at the same club.
“But especially in today’s modern age, they are all so connected. They are so integrated now. It is really different than what it was 25-30 years ago.”
The level of familiarity breeds an atmosphere that crackles with excitement as both sides struggle to find the extra edge even though everyone knows everyone else’s tendencies.
“The coaches know the coaching styles,” Adams said. “You’re always going to throw in a couple wrinkles, hoping to catch somebody off guard.
“But when you talk about those early rivalry games, it really comes down to executing at critical times. Those final thirds – those chances to either score a goal or possibly defend a goal – are such a key part of it, and the small margin for error.”
When it comes to the DuPage Valley Conference race, neither the Redhawks (7-3-1, 3-0-0) or Huskies (9-5-1, 2-1-0) have much margin for error. The Redhawks, who are ranked 19th in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, are tied for first place with top-ranked and defending state champion Metea Valley (13-0-3, 3-0-0).
Those two teams will meet next Tuesday. But the Redhawks need to beat third-ranked North to keep pace. And that won’t be easy.
The Huskies will be defending their home turf and are sure to be in a surly mood after losing 1-0 to Metea Valley on Tuesday on a buzzer-beating goal by Mckenna Wigfield at the end of overtime. They have dropped their last two games, albeit on penalty kicks to second-ranked Barrington and in overtime to Metea, since freshman sensation Claire DeCook, who leads the team with 16 goals and six assists, suffered a knee injury against New Trier.
“Any time you play your crosstown rival it’s one of those games that has a ton of emotion,” Naperville North coach Steve Goletz said. “It’s managing those emotions and being good at the things we practice and we focus on, and try to do our best to contain some great players that they have and battle.”
The Redhawks have the best player at either end of the field in Northwestern-bound striker Megan Norkett and center back Ella Burke, a Cincinnati commit. The two seniors rank among the best in the state and are enjoying impressive seasons.
Despite facing frequent double- and triple-teams, Norkett has scored 12 goals and recorded 10 assists, which accounts for nearly 75 percent of her team’s goals. Burke has two goals and one assist while playing lockdown defense alongside fellow senior Taylor Walk.
But Central will need good performances from some of its talented yet inconsistent younger players.
“You’d like kids to accelerate that improvement from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, but learning is never linear,” Adams said. “It jumps and goes up, and it goes down and that’s probably been a good feel for our season.
“Obviously, Megan has been a consistent part of it. Burke’s been a consistent part. Taylor Walk has been consistent. But those are veteran players that have played a lot of minutes. Some of the other ones have had great games and games where they’ve struggled.”
With teams so focused on trying, and often failing, to shut down Norkett, opportunities abound for forwards such as sophomore Bella Brozek and freshman Malia Shen and junior midfielders Rebecca Ruggiero and Lauren Thorne.
Their numbers have been modest thus far. Brozek is Central’s second-leading scorer with three goals and five assists. Ruggiero has three goals and two assists, while Shen had two goals and three assists.
“We want to make sure that Megan is getting her space, getting her time, but also not just standing and watching,” Adams said. “The effect of ‘She’s going to do something brilliant, so let’s just watch her do it,’ instead of, ‘Let’s start moving so that when she starts to draw three and four girls, somebody is there to play off of her.’
“That’s been a learning curve throughout the season.”
Across the BNSF railroad tracks, the Huskies have been enduring a similar learning curve. With nine new starters, the team’s outlook was uncertain, yet the tremendous leadership of senior co-captains Cameron DeCook and Maggie Fitzgerald, both of whom have decided to forgo college soccer careers, has led to an inspiring start against a typically rough schedule.
Despite playing through an ankle injury that caused her to miss four games, Cameron DeCook has registered six goals and three assists. Fitzgerald, equally comfortable in the back or the midfield, has chipped in two goals and three assists.
Their leadership has galvanized an outstanding freshman class which included three starters in Claire DeCook, goalkeeper Olivia Ochsner – who has an 0.91 goals-against average and six shutouts – and defender Addison Stitzman, who has contributed three assists while combining with senior Alison Sutton, junior Reagan O’Malley and sophomore Abby Penn to form a solid backline.
“Alison Sutton has been absolutely fantastic as a senior leader for us,” Goletz said. “She’s a kid who has waited her turn, and she’s come in and been absolutely amazing.
“Reagan O’Malley has been very good. She’s continued to get better.
“We turned Abby Penn into an outside back. Marina Polvieja has been playing back there. We’ve got a freshman, Addison Sitzman, who competes and battles. She continues to get a little bit more comfortable with what we’re expecting.
“The backline has been very good, and it’s kept us in games against very good opponents.
We’ve got to find a way to continually try to generate some goals until we figure out what’s going on with Claire.”
Junior forward Annie Chang, a varsity rookie, has been impressive. She’s bagged nine goals, including a pair of hat tricks. Junior forward Rachael Noren has three goals and three assists, as does junior midfielder Jacey Sturek.
“It will be another great game,” Goletz said. “It’s always an awesome game, and I’m excited to get a chance to coach against Troy now on the girls side.
“I know that he’ll have the girls ready to go and that they’re going to be looking forward to coming to crosstown and giving us their best effort on our home field.”