RIVER FOREST -- The plan is to peak.
When Nazareth took on Fenwick at the Friars’ Priory Athletic Campus, both squads hoped to fine-tune the things they believe will help them make a deep run in the IHSA playoffs that start next week.
Both teams were happy that they got to get some nice things done in the teams’ 1-1 nonconference tie on a beautiful Thursday afternoon in River Forest.
“I loved their resiliency, especially at the end,” Nazareth manager Roberto Cianci said. “We’re down a couple people to injuries, and we played a tough game the night before with St. Ignatius in this heat. So, we had to play more defensive and change the formation.
“I liked the first 15-20 minutes. We had some nice passing combinations and looked good. But then, we started to see the fatigue in the legs. I’m proud of them for believing the whole way through.”
“We’ve improved a lot all year,” manager Craig Blazer said of Fenwick. “Naz scored the goal on one shot, and they settled in. We made a couple adjustments and were able to do some special things. The credit goes to the girls for continuing to work really hard until the end.”
The visitors got on the board first when senior Ella O’Neill got a ball from junior Layden Almer and finished in the ninth minute to give the Roadrunners the early lead.
“It was a really good build-up from our team,” O’Neill. “The ball came through the middle. We worked it through, had it by the corner flag, crossed it in. It got deflected, and I had it right in front of me. Just a nice little tuck in.
“That’s the type of build-up we’ve been working on this entire season. It was so good to see it come to fruition.”
Cianci added: “Why I get frustrated so easily is we can put it together like that against a good team and score a goal the way we’ve worked on, but then the frustration goes back to us playing kick and run. But seeing that, that’s definitely really exciting.”
For Nazareth, the hard work that they’ve put in all season looked like it was coming together with that goal, and that another might be in the offing.
But it wasn’t to be.
“I think it was us just becoming disorganized, where we thought ‘OK, who has who?’” O’Neill said. “And with the formation we play, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out who has who and who needs to cover where.
“But we’ve been trying to work on that the past few days, trying to figure it out, recognize when to drop, when to shift, when to hold. It was good to see in a game situation that we have to work on it, but we’ve made progress with it.”
When the second half started, Fenwick had been playing from behind for 31 minutes. The hosts began to work harder to do something about that.
The Friars earned multiple free kicks and corners and made the Nazareth keeper work to keep her squad in the lead. Audrey Moster made two big saves in the first eight minutes of the half and add three more before Fenwick’s Fiona Roche scored the equalizer in the 67th minute.
“I was waiting for it to come to my feet, but I saw Grace with her back turned. I thought it’d be easier to get a run on and hopefully she’d see me,” Roche said. “It was skillful of Grace to get it to me. I focused on getting it beneath the goalie, and it went in.
“We talked about raising our energy at the half and keeping the ball. We needed to get players in position to shoot, so we focused on getting the ball to the wing, keeping it up, keeping possession.”
For as much as the Friars’ offense hummed in the second half, their defense also stood tall. Nazareth wasn’t able to build much of an attack. But the Roadrunners almost saved their best for last in an effort to steal the game. In the closing half minute, Fenwick junior keeper Leah Hyland came up with a diving save to preserve the tie.
Following a number of heavy personnel losses from one of the best seasons in program history last year, the Friars record isn’t flashy. But the 4-9-5 overall mark includes a 2-7-0 record against Class 3A teams, including a large percentage who have been ranked this season. Roche has seen her squad move up the improvement chart as the team’s concluded its regular-season schedule.
“The captains, the upperclassmen, and even the sophomores -- seeing how far we went last year and what we were able to accomplish -- the mentality is what’s kept us being so resilient,” she said.
Nazareth’s closing run to the end of its regular-season was a taxing one. The Fenwick game was the team’s third in four days and was followed by their East Suburban Catholic Conference, home and season finale against Saint Viator on Saturday. The Roadrunners (7-10-2) fell 3-1 to finish in fourth place in the conference standings with a 3-3-0 record.
After its own challenging season schedule, Cianci and O’Neill hope their squad will rejuvenate for the postseason. They have been happy with how they’ve responded in the hectic week.
“We’re hoping to get a moment to catch our breath,” O'Neill said. “We’re ready for everyone to take a deep breath and say to themselves that ‘We’re going into the playoffs. We feel good about ourselves. Be true to that, keep ourselves accountable, know what we’re capable of doing.’
“If we do that, we’ll be set.”
Nazareth is seeded sixth in the Class AA sectional it hosts. The Roadrunners will meet no. 11-seed Providence in a Hinsdale South Regional semifinal at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. A win sets up a final against either their third-seeded host or no. 14-seed Kennedy on May 19th.
Fenwick was seeded seventh in the De La Salle Sectional. The Friars host their own regional and open the playoffs May 17 against 11th-seeded Lake View of the Chicago Public League. A win gives the hosts a chance to repeat as a regional champ against either no. 15-seeded Bulls Prep or third-seeded Westinghouse on May 19.
Last season, seventh-seeded Lake View beat no. 2-seed Westinghouse 3-1 in the Schurz Regional final. The Wildcats then lost 9-1 to Fenwick in the sectional semifinal round.
However, before both teams start state tournament action, their managers know what they need to work on to facilitate their best chance to reach the state finals in Naperville on the first weekend of June.
“I’m just looking to see them believe in the movement of the ball, the passing of the ball,” Cianci said. “Playing as a unit, that’s the most important thing. We’re in a tough regional and a tough sectional, but if we can do that … and I said this to them, I believe we can play with anybody as long as we believe in each other.”
Fenwick has items on its to-do list as well.
“We’re still working on building out of the back,” Blazer said. “Leah (Hyland) has a good free kick. Today the group decided to play a little more direct, but we’re still trying to see if we can play out of the back.
“And if we can do a little better job of attacking and defending free kicks, we’ll be better. We’re getting there.“
GK: Audrey Moster
D: Evelyn Sifferman
D: Annie Trayser
D: Andrea Stavropoulos
D: Lily Berner
MF: Samantha Rozmus
MF: Nikolette Weiss
MF: Trea Notz
MF: Layden Almer
F: Olivia Austin
F: Ella O'Neill
GK: Leah Hyland
D: Lola Martinez
D: Emma Maria Bassett
D: Maddie Rogowski
D: Ellie Dvorak
MF: Fiona Roche
MF: Alex Ballinger
MF: Keira Kapsch
MF: Finley Dondlinger
MF: Mary Brunick
F: Grace Kapsch
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Fiona Roche, jr., MF, Fenwick
Nazareth - Ella O’Neill (Layden Almer), 9th minute
Fenwick - Fiona Roche (Grace Kapsch), 67th minute