ST. CHARLES – It was an emotional sendoff for a stellar group of Wheaton Warrenville South seniors Friday night at St. Charles North.
Tigers coach Guy Callipari gathered his fourth-year players into a huddle on the field minutes after his team, despite a strong effort, fell 2-0 to the North Stars in the hosts’ Class 3A regional final.
There were some tears shed to be sure in the impromptu get-together.
“You’ve got to give them some type of a gift as they leave,” said the coach, “and I think that gift is the legacy that they leave behind. These seniors have left the program better than when they came. We’ve had a lot of fun and have been competitive, and at the end of the day that’s all you can do.”
“Sometimes they look to the bench, where we have predominantly sophomores and freshman, and that’s where the legacy is. They (the seniors) are allowing them to breathe, allowing them to flourish and come in to the fold. They’re giving them room to explore and prepare for the next stage.”
Wheaton Warrenville South held the North Stars at bay through a scoreless, extremely competitive first half. A strong wind blowing from north to south played a big part in the outcome of the game.
St. Charles North struck in the second half with goals from midfielder Bella Najera and forward Rian Spaulding to win its 20th-consecutive regional title.
North Stars senior goalkeeper Kara Claussner was exceptional in goal to earn the clean-sheet.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Wheaton Warrenville South program,” said North Stars coach Brian Harks.
“The way they’re coached from top to bottom, the quality of their players, and the mindset they have as they approach the playoffs -- we knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy game by any stretch of the imagination.
“I’m just so proud of the way that our girls were able to weather the wind in the first half and even generate some opportunities. Then they put it away and finished in the second half.”
Kate Hartnett is one of the six seniors on the Wheaton Warrenville South roster. The forward said that she and her teammates left it all on the field against the North Stars, who ended the Tigers regional winning streak at two.
“We played with so much heart tonight, honestly,” said Hartnett. “We all really wanted this game. Pretty much the whole time I was thinking that this might be our last match. I didn’t want it to be, because I’ve been playing this game my whole life.
“It was really tough coming off the field knowing that we lost, but the brighter side is that I know we played up to our potential. We deserved it (the win) tonight, but we came out unlucky.”
St. Charles North played into the stiff breeze in the first 40 minutes but still generated some good early chances.
Spaulding in particular had a couple of point-blank shots but great defense from Wheaton Warrenville South defenders Ella McClatchy and Brooke Ittersagen helped turn them away.
The contest settled in until the 35th minute when each team had a flurry of opportunities.
Wheaton Warrenville South sophomore attacker Ashlyn Adams, in particular, had a terrific chance just before intermission, but her left-footed shot from the flank was saved by Claussner.
“At the half,” said Hartnett, “I honestly felt like we had the game. We had worked super hard in the first half no matter what the circumstances, and we talked (at halftime) about how we wanted to come out just as strong in the second half.
“That didn’t happen, but I’m still extremely proud of all the girls.”
With the breeze at their backs, St. Charles North struck quickly on a corner kick.
North Stars senior Najera curled it expertly around a mass of players near the goal and saw it nestle in the back of the net to make it 1-0 in the 42nd minute.
“We had the wind with us,” said Najera, “and we did a corner kick where everyone goes to the front of the goal and creates havoc.
“I knew I could get the ball to curl around everyone with the help of the wind. It felt amazing when it went in. In the first half we couldn’t put the ball in the net, so we wanted to take advantage of our opportunities in the second half.”
Hartnett indicated that the early goal just after intermission might have taken a little wind out of Wheaton Warrenville South’s sails.
“We had talked at halftime about not letting them score,” said the senior, “so when they came out and did it was a little deflating. We knew we had to keep the intensity up, but things just didn’t work out in our favor.”
In the 63rd minute, St. Charles North concluded the scoring.
North Stars junior midfielder Kayla Floyd, who played an outstanding match, dribbled 20 yards through traffic and delivered a long ball to junior Spaulding.
The forward won possession from a Wheaton Warrenville South defender just outside the box. From there she fired a rocket past the keeper to make it 2-0.
“A number of our players stepped up tonight,” said Harks, “and Kayla Floyd was one of them for sure. She was getting to all the 50/50 balls. I actually thought that every single one of our players stepped up to the challenge.”
Wheaton Warrenville South (8-8-5) sped up its attack in the final 20 minutes.
Senior Lauren Barnett drove into St. Charles North territory twice on splendid individual efforts. Each time she was turned away by the backline of the North Stars.
Abby Sims, a junior, put in a top-notch performance for the North Stars defense. She and her teammates prevented the Tigers from getting any meaningful shots on goal down the stretch.
St. Charles North (15-3-2) saw its unbeaten streak stretch to five games (4-0-1). The North Stars advance to meet the winner between Batavia and Wheaton North in the Hoffman Estates Regional on Saturday. The sectional semifinal is set for 4:30 p.m. May 23.
The final horn saw St. Charles North hoist the regional championship plaque. The scene signified the end of the line for Wheaton Warrenville South seniors Hartnett, Barnett, McClatchy, Kate Gronlund, Mollie Nolan and Carolyn Harvey.
“They mean everything to us,” said Wheaton Warrenville South assistant coach Malinda Holmer of the senior class. “They’re our leaders. They have the ability to lead in skill, as well as (mentoring) all the young ones on the team and inspiring them to build up our program.
“They’ve battled all year. We’ve had challenging opponents this season. Our schedule has been a bit of a struggle at times, but these kids came out every game and win, lose or tie, they had a strong re-set.
“I think their mindset has been a key. They were able to take everything one game at a time.”
Wheaton Warrenville South coach Callipari added that it was tough to play a team like St. Charles North, the second seed in the West Chicago Sectional, so quickly in the playoffs.
“I think that Coach “E” (Eric Willson of St. Charles North) said it best,” he said. “This match was probably worthy of a sectional final, where the winner travels on to a supersectional.
“It’s unfortunate that a game like this comes early but that’s the way it’s set up. Eventually, you’re going to have to play someone of St. Charles North’s quality anyway. They’re a well-organized team.
“We had a few bad bounces here or there tonight, but that’s the way the game is played.”
The game was also the last for Wheaton Warrenville South senior and team manager Madelyn Doherty.
Doherty was a varsity player her freshman and sophomore season. She took a break from soccer her junior year. But she missed the camaraderie and agreed to return as manager when she was called on by coach Callipari.
“I just wanted to be back with the girls in this environment,” she said. “I love the sport so much. I just needed to be around it again.”
A team manager is an integral component to any soccer squad.
Doherty listed her main duties as social media coordinator, game-time quotes, promotions, and being the link between the team and the trainer and the medical staff.
“I’m basically just here to support to the team,” she said, “and get them ready for the games. I know tonight that everyone was ready to give it their all.”
Now the Wheaton Warrenville South seniors will be moving on to bright futures.
Among them, Hartnett will enroll at Kansas in the fall, where her most likely focus of study will be occupational therapy.
“I’ve just always wanted to help others and work with people,” she said. “I’ve always been kind of a hands-on person, so working behind a desk wouldn’t be the best fit for me.”
Hartnett added that she’ll really miss the bond she shared with her teammates.
“I’m upset about this being our last game, but I’d rather have my last game be with these girls than anyone else. They’ve been my family for the last four years and have always stood by my side.
“I’m proud to go out with them.”
Wheaton Warrenville South
GK Marilyn Dixon
D Ella Byrnes
D Brooke Ittersagen
D Ella McClatchy
M Kate Gronlund
M Carolyn Harvey
M Lily Petrie
F Ashlyn Adams
F Lauren Barnett
F Kate Hartnett
F Lucy Jethani
St. Charles North
GK Kara Claussner
D Lauren Balster
D Chloe Kirsten
D Abby Sims
D Abby Vichich
M Kayla Floyd
M Bella Najera
M Juliana Park
F Sophie Kirsten
F Rian Spaulding
F Laney Stark
Chicagoland Soccer MVPs of the Match: Kayla Floyd, jr., MF, St. Charles North; Bella Najera, sr., MF, St. Charles North
SCN: Najera (unassisted/corner kick), 42nd minute
SCN: Spaulding (Floyd) from 20 yards, 63rd minute