LEMONT - When you're competing in a sectional that features programs like Benet and Lemont, teams that have long track records of success in the postseason, you'd better be playing at your peak.
And Wheaton Academy, with an impressive playoff resume of its own, showed it was in peak form as the Class AA Nazareth Academy Sectional kicked off into full swing.
That Warriors utilized excellent possession and distribution to pepper the net with good opportunities, while allowing few, as they rolled to a 6-0 victory over Joliet Catholic on Tuesday in a Lemont Regional semifinal.
The Warriors (11-6-3), who've gone 10-3-2 since a 1-3-1 start, are 4-0-1 in their last five matches and have outscored opponents by a 16-1 margin during that span.
Wheaton Academy quickly took control against the Angels (4-13-3) by scoring three times in the opening 10 minutes and built a 5-0 lead at the break. Becca Schulenburg led the way with a first half hat-trick. It was the junior’s second three-goal effort in eight days – the other came in the regular-season finale against Hoffman Estates.
But Schulenburg, who added an assist and was chosen the Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match, was far from being the only threat for coach Maria Selvaggio's squad. Senior Haley Serna and freshman Annika Vandervelde also connected in the opening half, and senior Britta Love accounted for the match's lone second half goal.
Senior Haleigh Manske and juniors Anna Africa, Eva DeSouza and Katelyn Schoepke all had assists as the Warriors did their best to avoid playing the full 80 minutes. But Joliet Catholic, which won state trophies in 2019 and 2021 wouldn't let that happen. Goalkeeper Kylee Vercelote and her defense continued to hang tough until the end.
Wheaton Academy sophomore goalkeeper Noelle Niekamp did not need a save for the clean-sheet. Her starting defenders, seniors Jillian Paulson and Manske, junior Hannah Lindberg and sophomore Lexi Rojek helped the Warriors claim their 10th shutout. Nine of those came in their last 12 matches.
"We're thrilled with the result and just the execution of the game plan," Selvaggio said. "We like to possess. We like to play quality soccer, and we like to make sure that we have numbers in the attack and options on the ball. We had a lot of exciting moments in doing that.
"They were very focused. This team is very unified. They're very hungry, and they're driven. They're excited about the opportunity to compete in the postseason. We had some injuries early in the season but as we settled into April and May, things have been really starting to click."
Selvaggio is a 2006 graduate of Wheaton Academy. She was a member of the 2004 Class A championship team and also played on three Division III national finalists at Wheaton College. She has set a high bar for her players. The Warriors program has three state titles and four other top-four finishes since 2004.
"Our leaders are just fantastic human beings, and they're really easy to kind of ignite and lead the charge in that," Selvaggio said. "When they set the tone and let it be known the standard that they want to play at, everybody follows suit, even the freshmen and sophomores who are new to the team this year. Everyone is just hungry and excited.
"It (Lemont) should be a really exciting matchup and we're excited to keep playing for more time together. We're motivated and ready."
Schulenburg scored her first goal in the sixth minute and got her second tally in the 10th minute when she converted a penalty. After collecting her third goal in the 37th minute, the junior had many more good opportunities to pick up a few more scores.
"We've been emphasizing one mind, one voice as a team this year," Schulenburg said. "And the past few games that we've had have really been a showcase of what we've been trying to do. We took off and started playing more as a team and giving each other greater opportunities to connect.
"I've had a lot of two goals in one game, but in the last game that I played, I also got three goals. We were locked in, and the energy was high. I really love the community. We bounce back from losses. We've lost a few that we should have won. But we came back, and we haven't let our wins get us too high or our losses get us too low."
The Warriors made the most of their initial good chance in the match when Africa sent in a pass from the side and Serna connected from close range for the lead during the second minute.
After Schulenburg had her first good chance cleared by a defender, DeSouza sent in a corner kick that deflected off a defender and was hauled in the Joliet Catholic keeper.
Shortly after that, Manske placed another corner kick into the box. This time it was headed into the net by Schulenburg for her first goal to make it 2-0 in the sixth minute.
The Warriors made it 3-0 in the 10th minute when Schoepke was fouled in the box and Schulenburg converted the subsequent penalty.
Wheaton Academy continued to threaten over the next few minutes. Africa and DeSouza were thwarted by Vercelote, and junior Mia Filippo had an attempt that was cleared by a defender.
The score moved to 4-0 in the 23rd minute when DeSouza sent a pass in front of the net to Vandervelde, who put in a close-range try.
The Warriors kept the pressure up through the final 10 minutes of the opening half with Schoepke and Paulson both placing shots on goal and being just wide on other tries.
"It was a very good way to start the postseason and it gives us some confidence for the next game," Paulson said. "I think we played quick and played to our level. We have a lot of individual talent, and it's taken us a while to kind of put that together. But now that we have, it looks really good.
"I'm really excited. For senior year, it's good to end on a good note with a strong team. I like our possession. I think that we are able to find a lot of good possession through our midfield. We have really strong midfielders and then using that to find our speed out on the width is really good."
Wheaton Academy took a 5-0 lead in the 37th minute when Schoepke sent a pass to Schulenburg, who fired in a liner from about 10 yards to complete her hat-trick and capped first half scoring.
After opening the second half with good attempts from Serna, Schoepke and DeSouza, the Warriors closed its offensive shop in the 48th minute when Love got a pass from Schulenburg and sent in a try from 30 yards that went off of the keeper's hands and into the net.
Schulenburg sent in at least four more threatening attempts throughout the remainder of the match. Juniors Fionna Davis and Peyton Schur, Filippo, Vandervelde, Schoepke, Lindberg and DeSouza also had good shots that were halted or cleared as Joliet Catholic prevented the match from ending early.
"Our team has these core values in our handbook and ‘audience of One’ is my favorite," DeSouza said. "We know that we have an ‘audience of One,’ which is God. We're all striving for the same goal; we're not individual-minded. We're playing for each other and for the common goal of playing to the best of our abilities.
"We were having some issues in our midfield at the beginning of the season with spacing. We've slowly built from the back to the midfield, and I think we're disciplined there. Now we're just really to the top of the box and as you saw, we had so many chances."
The Warriors meet up with Lemont (15-5-1) in Friday's 4 p.m. final.
The regional host also jumped out to an early lead in an 8-0 win over Solorio in the second semifinal match.
Coach Rick Prangen's program, which is seeded second to Benet, has advanced to the sectional semifinals 17 times since 2002, including each season since 2013.
Wheaton Academy, which is seeded seventh, hopes to take part in sectional competition for the 13th time since 2008.
The winner of Friday's Lemont Regional final advances to a Nazareth Sectional semifinal against either Hinsdale South or the host Roadrunners at 6:30 p.m. May 23 in LaGrange Park.
GK - Noelle Niekamp
D - Hannah Lindberg
D - Jillian Paulson
D - Haleigh Manske
D - Lexi Rojek
MF - Haley Serna
MF - Eva DeSouza
MF - Anna Africa
MF - Britta Love
F - Katelyn Schoepke
F - Becca Schulenburg
GK - Kylee Vercelote
D - Aaliyah Calderon
D - Lanie Czerkies
D - Alexa Luz
D - Nora Buss
MF - Ella Dwyer
MF - Allie Lesters
MF - Lyndsay Black
MF - Mary Meyer
F - Emma Vitas
F - Ava Giarrante
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Becca Schulenburg, jr., F. Wheaton Academy
WA - Haley Serna (Anna Africa), 2'
WA - Becca Schulenburg (Haleigh Manske), 6'
WA - Becca Schulenburg (PK), 10'
WA - Annika Vandervelde (Eva DeSouza), 23'
WA - Becca Schulenburg (Katelyn Schoepke), 37'
WA - Britta Love (Becca Schulenburg), 48'
Tag(s): Wheaton Academy