AURORA — History is inescapable during this privileged moment, shadowing teams and players. It’s the exhilarating or cruel consequence of the here-today, gone-tomorrow state tournament format.
“Only one team is going to end up winning the state championship, and it’s a heartbreaking day for everybody else,” Oswego East midfielder Erika Smiley said.
The Wolves were chasing another crucial step in the program’s evolution toward elite status.
Naperville North was rebranding and reforming.
“We played Barrington the first game of the season, and Cameron DeCook and I just looked at each other,” Naperville North defender Maggie Fitzgerald said. “We were both nervous at the (low) amount of varsity experience we had on the field used to the big moment and the big game.”
Over the course of the season, Naperville North developed its savvy, toughness and skill. It was too much for Oswego East to overcome.
DeCook and Fitzgerald scored a goal apiece in the Huskies’ 4-1 victory in the championship of the Class 3A East Aurora Regional before an estimated crowd of 350 on Friday.
The third-seeded Huskies return to East Aurora on Tuesday to play second-seeded Plainfield North in the second sectional semifinal.
The two teams played to a 1-1 tie on April 6.
Defending state champion Metea Valley, the no. 1 seed, plays fifth-seeded Lockport, in the first semifinal at 4 p.m.
Naperville North (13-5-2) won its sixth-consecutive regional and fourth game in a row.
Fitzgerald and Cameron DeCook are the only returning starters from the Huskies’ team that beat Oswego East 6-0 in a sectional semifinal last year.
“I have never been more proud of a team,” Fitzgerald said. “It really doesn’t matter how inexperienced we were coming into the season.
“I have never worked with a group of girls who fight so hard. I think people underestimated us a lot, because we had four freshmen in our starting lineup.”
The most prized freshman, Claire DeCook, suffered a season-ending knee injury in a victory over New Trier.
The Huskies are 11-2-0 in their last 13 games, with six shutout victories and a 45-8 goal differential.
The only losses in that stretch came in back-to-back games against the 2022 Class 3A state finalists: runnerup Barrington in a shootout, and champion Metea Valley in a 1-0 double overtime game.
Oswego East (12-7-2) had its work cut out for it.
The Wolves gave Naperville North all it had. With elite talent like Smiley and junior Anya Gulbrandsen, Oswego East has made the leap from emerging program to team on the move.
Smiley and Gulbrandsen are both Division I recruits, underscoring the elite talent now coalescing around the program.
Two years ago, the Wolves had a perfect regular-season and reached a regional final.
Oswego East captured its first regional championship in program history last year.
The loss against Naperville North last year illustrated the difference at the highest level of state tournament teams.
“We knew today was going to be a good game just from last year,” Smiley said. “We definitely wanted our revenge.
“We gave it our all, and we definitely have a couple of minutes we’d like to take back, especially in the first half.”
A sharp victory over York in a consolation game of the Naperville Invitational helped turn the season for the Wolves.
Oswego East closed out the season with a 4-2-1 run, its only losses coming against Plainfield North and the Huskies.
With the advantage of the wind in the first half, Naperville North influenced the action, tempo and rhythm.
Cameron DeCook and Rachael Noren created a lot of pressure at the top of the attack. Fitzgerald solidified the back.
From the jump, Naperville North had the Wolves on their heels.
“It is really tough when you play a team that is so good, and you have to try not to panic,” Gulbrandsen said.
“It’s an adjustment thing. We experienced the same thing when we played them last year. It’s just really hard when you are on your heels like that to suddenly try to get on the front of your feet.”
Oswego East was reacting. Naperville North dictated the flow.
Only the spectacular play of Oswego East keeper Sam McPhee kept the Huskies at bay.
She finished with nine saves.
As the chances and opportunities accumulated, the math inevitably worked in Naperville North’s favor.
The game turned in the final stretch of the first half when the Huskies scored two punishing goals in a lightning three-minute stretch.
Before her injury, Claire DeCook scored a remarkable 16 goals in just 11 games.
Her older sister has picked up the pace in her absence.
In the 28th minute, a Naperville North throw-in deflected off the head of an Oswego East defender. Cameron DeCook got to the ball and brilliantly used her body to shield a Wolves’ defender to find a clear path to the goal.
She took an extra touch to force McPhee off her line and worked around her for the goal from about nine yards.
“We had so many chances, and I just knew one of them would fall,” DeCook said. “After that it would open the floodgates, and I feel like we did.
“We beat them pretty substantially last year. And we knew in the back of our minds, we had to be really careful not to be overconfident. Obviously, they’re a great team.”
The Huskies did not relent. Just moments after the goal, McPhee made a spectacular stop of a short volley by Annie Chang.
“That first goal was deflating, and it was hard for some of our players not to get down or hang their heads,” Smiley said.
Naperville North took advantage.
In the 30th minute, working the middle of the final third, Noren played a ball to her left that sophomore midfielder Isa Polavieja controlled and blasted home from 12 yards from the wing.
“We knew we were dominating the game, but it was nice to see the goals,” DeCook said.
“You need to obviously score goals to win. It doesn’t really matter if we have the ball all the time if it doesn’t go in the back of the net. That was great to get that momentum.”
Cameron DeCook earned the Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match honor for her outstanding play.
Oswego East showed fight and toughness in the second half, creating more chances.
Gulbrandsen, who had four goals in the 5-1 regional semifinal victory over Plainfield East, worked very well with Smiley.
Some of the Wolves’ other attacking pieces, like midfielders Lana Bomstad, Cathie Sloan and Ashley Gumm got more involved.
Forward Morgan Hoffman created a corner chance in the 47th minute.
“It’s great to have Big Ten commits, like Anya and myself, but we have great players who are not even committed yet who played great, like Lana in the middle,” Smiley said.
“Our chemistry came together, and it was portrayed out there on the field.”
The Wolves forced Naperville North freshman keeper Olivia Ochsner to make four saves.
Oswego East played even with the Huskies throughout the second half.
The backbreaker came in the 65th minute after Noren was fouled from behind inside the box.
Fitzgerald promptly stepped up and converted.
“I thought we did a good job of keeping our heads up, but once they got that penalty kick, we lost that momentum,” Smiley said.
Smiley and Gulbrandsen collaborated for the final time on the Wolves’ best moment.
In the 77th minute, Smiley played a sweet ball down the left flank. The quick and explosive Gulbrandsen took it in movement.
She made a quick stutter step and drilled a left-footed blast to paydirt from about 17 yards.
The goal was her 30th of the year, a benchmark for the program.
“I thought it was great that we scored that goal, because it showed our fight, and how competitive we were and playing hard until the end of the game,” defender Emma Rosenthal said.
The elation was temporary.
Twenty seconds later, Chang got behind the Wolves and scored the final goal.
Through the tears and embraces, Oswego East made their stand.
“We went through a lot of challenges and obstacles this year,” Smiley said.
“I enjoyed every moment, because, like the saying goes, it went by so fast.”
GK: Sam McPhee
D: Veronica Hamilton
D: Jocy Cruz
D: Emma Klosterman
D: Emma Rosenthal
MF: Erika Smiley
MF: Lana Bomstad
MF: Catie Sloan
MF: Ashley Gumm
F: Anya Gulbrandsen
F: Morgan Hoffman
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Cameron DeCook, sr., F, Naperville North
Naperville North—Cameron DeCoook (unassisted), 28th minute
Naperville North—Isa Polavieja (Rachael Noren), 30th minute
Naperville North—Maggie Fitzgerald (penalty kick), 65th minute
Oswego East (Anya Gulbrandsen), 77th minute
Naperville North—Annie Chang (Katherine Ruan), 77th minute