WHEATON -- Paige Chrustowski hit a side-volley, upper-90 goal early in the second half, and Hannah Blaha made a tremendous save with under two minutes to play to make it hold up as St. Francis knocked off Riverside-Brookfield 1-0 Tuesday night to win the Metro Suburban Conference Blue Division.
“I think it was a great cross,” said Chrustowski, who didn't find out until later it came from Ella Wozniak. “Both (Riverside-Brookfield) players missed it, and I just really turned. I didn’t really look at the goal. I really didn’t know where it was going. I knew I was at the top of the box, just because of where the ball was played and how the center backs were lined up.”
Stars like Chrustowski shine when they’re needed most.
“Part of the learning curve is getting them to understand that big-time players make big-time plays,” Spartans coach Jim Winslow said. “Paige is a big-time player.”
Chrustowski, who was named to the Chicagoland Soccer Players to Watch List earlier in the season along with Wozniak and Blaha, was named the MVP of the Match.
St. Francis (10-4-0, 5-0-0) came out strong in the second half after holding off Riverside-Brookfield (13-5-2, 4-1-0), which was more dangerous in the first 40 minutes.
“We were much better in the second half,” Winslow said. “For the first 10 minutes we looked fine. We cracked off a couple (shots), and it’s just that our youth shows at times in the middle. (Blaha) had to make one big save, and she made it. They never got in front of us. So, I wasn’t worried about that, but we have kind of struggled with our youth at times.”
Niamh Larson, Nina Bretz and Hazel Hall were amongst the Bulldogs testing Blaha and the Spartans, especially throughout the first half, but they were unable to convert their chances. They certainly weren’t the only ones -- Riverside-Brookfield became St. Francis’ eighth shutout victim of the season.
“They converted their opportunities. We had ours, but they didn’t bounce the right way,” Bulldogs coach Ivek Halic said. “I was pleased with how the girls played. They fought back, and they continued to fight even down 1-0, but it’s soccer. We had opportunities and we played well enough to win. But again, it’s soccer.”
Larson got really close to getting the Bulldogs on the board midway through the first half. After she caught up to a through-ball she was able to get in-close for a shot attempt, but Blaha was able to deny it with 21:26 left to play in the first half.
Blaha’s biggest test of the night came much, much later. Hall crossed the ball to Madison Bisiules who rifled the potential equalizer only to see it batted away by Blaha with just 1:40 left in regulation.
“I just kind of reacted,” Blaha said. “I saw the ball coming up and switched my positioning. I got an angle and dove and got one hand on it. It’s all I needed extended out. That’s just what I do.”
It preserved the shutout and more importantly allowed the Spartans to close out their tenure in the Metro Suburban Conference as Blue Division champs. They’ll compete in the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference next season.
“It was really cool to play for a title,” St. Francis sophomore defender Alyssa Suriano said. “It was messy in the first half. We were trying to rush to score. Then we calmed down once we got to the second half.”
Suriano was a key reason why the Spartans bent but didn’t break in back, joining senior sister Ada and Maeve McGinn and Stephanie Sullivan as part of the starting backline.
“The communication in the second half was by far so much better than in the first half,” Alyssa Suriano said. “And Paige (Chrustowksi) did wonderfully telling everyone where to go.”
St. Francis senior Elise Ward narrowly missed a huge moment with 3:15 remaining, but she wasn’t able to get good contact on a cross. Regardless, Ward was all smiles afterward.
“I’m here because this is fun, not because I’m good,” the modest Ward said. “I have three days left of school and (coach) Jim (Winslow) said I could do this (interview), and I could have my shining moment. This is my favorite senior moment.”
She could have more if the Spartans can communicate and play like they did in the second half in this victory.
“We need communication to not only have more fun, but to find each other easier,” Ada Suriano said. “We came out way stronger in the second half, and we played for each other. We were yelling at each other, but it was just because of the intensity of the game, but nothing personal.”
Winslow credited Riverside-Brookfield for being able to control tempo and play at their preferred pace. That kept St. Francis from getting into the flow they prefer.
“We never got the pace of the game that we wanted,” Winslow said. “They got the pace of the game they wanted, and it wasn’t slow, but it wasn’t fast either. Typically when we’re on, it’s boom, boom, boom, boom.”
Fortunately for St.Francis, all it took was one big boom from the right foot of Chrustowski. The result broke the hearts of Riverside-Brookfield, which will look to move forward after falling just short of a conference championship.
“We can’t dwell on this,” Halik said. “We still have games coming up, the playoffs coming up. We just have to learn from this as much as it hurts. We just have to keep on building and learning.”
GK: Piper Blair
D: Lucy Drenth
D: Jessica Sharenow
D: Sophie Swicionis
D: Cassidy Erb
MF: Ella Caputo
MF: Niamh Larson
MF: Madison Bisiules
MF: Nina Bretz
MF: Kate Newberry
F: Hazel Hall
GK: Hannah Blaha
D: Maeve McGinn
D: Alyssa Suriano
D: Stephanie Sullivan
D: Ada Suriano
MF: Olivia Basel
MF: Shannon Brown
MF: Sophia Roszkowski
MF: Carley Sitar
F: Ella Wozniak
F: Paige Chrustowski
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Paige Chrustowski, jr., F, St. Francis
St. Francis: Paige Chrustowski (Ella Woznia), 38:11 remaining