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Preview story: Naperville Central stands in way of Metea Valley league repeat

By By Matt Le Cren, 05/08/23, 2:45PM CDT


Nearly a year ago to the day, Metea Valley went to Naperville Central and stunned the top-ranked Redhawks 4-1 at Memorial Stadium.

The win gave the upstart Mustangs their first DuPage Valley Conference championship. The result was regarded by some as a fluke, a mere bump in the road for the Redhawks on their way to what they hoped was their first state title.

It was anything but. That match did produce the eventual state champion, but it was not Naperville Central, which was eliminated by Neuqua Valley in a regional final on the same field.

Instead, Metea Valley used the signature win as a springboard to unprecedented success, going on to capture the Class 3A state championship.

Naperville Central junior midfielder Lauren Thorne hasn’t forgotten. She and her teammates will be out for revenge when the Redhawks travel to Aurora on Tuesday for a 6:30 p.m. showdown with the Mustangs.

Once again, the DuPage Valley Conference title will be on the line. The Mustangs (14-0-3, 4-0-0), who have been ranked no. 1 in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25 all season, will claim the championship outright with a victory.

If the no. 24 Redhawks (8-4-1, 3-1-0) prevail, they will earn a share of the crown with the Mustangs as well as no. 4 Naperville North (10-5-1, 3-1-0) if it can beat Waubonsie Valley on Tuesday night.

“There is definitely a lot of motivation,” Thorne said. “None of us want to feel that feeling again.

“Last year was hard, because we were ranked so high for the majority of our season. Coming out of that, I feel like we have a lot of momentum and motivation to try to win a … conference championship, exactly like Metea did last year.”

In that way, the situation is reversed from last year’s match. Now, it is the Redhawks who are on the road trying to prove a point, and the Mustangs, who ride a 31-game unbeaten streak into the match, who are the heavy favorite.

That narrative, if not rejected, is being ignored by the Mustangs.

“I think it’s going to be a tough game, because they always are good competition,” Metea Valley senior midfielder Riley Strcic said. “But we’re going to stay with the same mindset we had last year and come in as an underdog, even though technically we aren’t.

“We’re going to keep working and not think we deserve anything, because we still have a really important game coming up.”

The two will meet again in the playoffs if the seeds hold. The would pit the Redhawks and Mustangs in the East Aurora Sectional semifinals in two weeks. Some teams will hold something back in lieu of such a scenario, but don’t expect Metea or Naperville Central to pull any punches with the league title at state.

“I think we always keep our head down and keep working,” Strcic said. “I don’t think we ever look at the records or our standing in state.

“We have the underdog mentality, because we’ve had that all the years we’ve played at Metea, because we’ve been underestimated. We just remain mentally strong and not going into a game expecting that we deserve anything.”

While the Mustangs play with confidence even with leading scorer Jordan Lange sidelined with a foot injury, they aren’t looking too far ahead, according to Metea Valley coach Chris Whaley.

“I think it’s part of our culture,” Whaley said.” I don’t let them get too confident in themselves in regards to seeding and rankings and all the talk.

“I try to keep us focused on winning each day and having a good practice and focus on one game at a time. The bigger picture kind of takes care of itself.”

The Mustangs feature strong attackers in forwards Tyra King, Lucy Burk, both Chicagoland Soccer All-Staters, and Cyndie Bayless. Strcic has been a rock as the holding midfielder, and Kaylee Bannack has anchored a stout defense.

Naperville Central has lost four of its last seven games, but all were against ranked teams – York, St. Charles North, Fremd and Naperville North – in games that went down to the wire. They also have one of the best players in the state in Northwestern-bound senior forward and all-stater Megan Norkett, who leads the team in scoring, and two other speed merchants in Thorne and sophomore winger Bella Brozek.

“Some of these losses have made us obviously frustrated,” Thorne said. “But coach (Troy) Adams has done a really good job of really coaching us well and continuing to remind us that we have to learn from our losses and move on and come back better. 

“I think we’ve done a really good job this year of moving the ball quickly, even if we don’t have amazing players at every position. We know what we need to do and make decisions fast. If you can do that, it throws the other team off.”

No opponent has been able to throw Metea Valley off its game yet. The Mustangs have scored in all but one game – a 0-0 tie with Missouri power Nerinx Hall – while winning five one-goal games and five two-goal games. That includes a trio of 1-0 victories vs. Lincoln-Way Central, Glenbard West and Naperville North in the past two weeks before a 4-0 shutout of Waubonsie Valley on Friday.

“I’m happy that we’ve played four games in a row without giving up a goal,” Whaley said. “I think we’ve done it against some good players, too.

“I’m not too worried about changing how we play. I want us to just focus on playing our game. There’s a lot on the line, so it should be fun.”