WEST CHICAGO– St. Charles East needed the first 40 minutes of Tuesday’s Class 3A West Chicago Sectional semifinal against Batavia to adjust. In addition to adapting to weather they had not yet experienced this season -- hot and humid -- the Saints had to counter Batavia’s defensive strategy that keyed on Saints’ striker Grace Williams.
St. Charles East (20-3-0) adjusted and scored three unanswered second half goals to win the match 3-0 and advance to Saturday’s championship contest against cross-town rival St. Charles North, which is ranked sixth in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25 poll.
Kara Machala, Tatum Smith and Williams all found the back of the net for the Saints. Saturday’s contest will be the fourth time in row, the two squads have squared off for a sectional crown. St. Charles East, ranked 12th in the poll, was the victor in the last two showdowns.
“We were shocked by the heat, just like they were. They had to deal with the same elements, so credit to them, because I thought they were probably a little bit better than us in the first half,” St. Charles East coach Vince DiNuzzo said.
In the first stanza, the Saints managed only two shots on goal and were unable to take advantage of three corner kicks and two free kicks. Batavia defenders Alexa Schorr, Delia Perfect and Hannah Hickman effectively contained Williams. The Bulldogs’ offense was hampered by a strong Saints backline and got off only one shot-on-goal.
“In the second half we moved Grace (Williams) around, and we also took her off the field,” DiNuzzo said. “We did some things that tried to give them some different looks, because Batavia was obviously pinpointing Grace and not allowing her space and time.”
Machala broke the scoreless deadlock six minutes into the second half with her 10th goal of the season. Running up the left side, the Northern Illinois commit corralled a pass from Alli Saviano and arched a shot from the corner of the 18. Her boot bounced off the cross bar and into the right corner of the net.
“I got the ball from Alli, and I took my space,” Machala said. “Nobody else was open, so I was like ‘What the heck? Let’s just go for it.’”
The senior felt her goal helped the Saints find their game.
“I think that’s when we picked it up and also calmed down,” she said.
DiNuzzo saw the score as inspiration.
“The goal motivated them. I think it was like ‘Hey, we are capable of more than what we just showed.’ So, I was happy with that,” he said. “And when we moved some things out, it opened up some stuff through the middle. Some of our freshmen played really well.”
Frosh Tatum Smith scored an insurance goal at the 21:18 mark of the second half. Classmate Anika Dodrill and Batavia keeper Addi Cooper charged a loose ball at the top of the box. Dodrill got to it first and tapped it to Smith, who finished the uncontested shot.
“I saw Alli (Saviano) play a beautiful ball to Anika, and I saw the goalie come out. I got the ball, and nobody was there, so I just chipped in,” said Smith, who earned the Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match honor for her play.
The Saints knew they had to step up their game in the last 40 minutes.
“We knew that we didn’t play our best half, and we had to prove that we play like East,” Smith said “So we knew we had to bring the energy out on the bench and on the field. And I think that definitely made us hype and play better in the second half.”
“Tatum Smith was fantastic today,” noted DiNuzzo.
Saviano just missed making it a 3-0 game on the Saints’ next attack. The junior blasted a ball from 40 yards that Cooper punched over the net.
Then Williams decided she was not going to be denied.
With 15 minutes left to play, the senior took a pass from Tia Bernstein, got behind Batavia’s defense and knocked in her 28th goal of the year from 20 yards.
Batavia’s offensive struggles continued into the second half, and the Bulldogs were limited to mostly set plays. The best chance in the second half was Brooke Carlson’s blast from 30 yards that was stopped by Saints keeper Sidney Lazenby (3 saves).
St. Charles East defender Mackenzie Loomis led the Saints’ backline. The junior challenged and headed away numerous 50/50 balls.
“We call her the brick wall; she’s just solid. Technically, she has some good instincts,” said DiNuzzo. “She cuts out a lot of passes, and she tackles. She is fearless She just puts her body behind the ball; she doesn’t care who’s there.”
Loomis has embraced the header.
“I think over the time, I definitely grew that fearlessness with heading the ball on corners and set pieces,” Loomis said. “I just got more used to it over time with practice and games.”
St. Charles East’s halftime changes also improved its midfield play.
“I thought (the midfield) was better in the second half. There was a huge gap between the forward line and midfield line in the first half,” said the Fighting Saints’ coach. “They did a better job of getting into final part of the field and joining the attack in the second half.”
St. Charles East, the top seed in the West Chicago Sectional, hopes history repeats itself. Last year, the Saints dropped two regular-season matches to the St. Charles North but edged the North Stars in the sectional championship. This season, second-seeded St. Charles North (16-3-2) again came out on top both times the teams played.
“Feels a bit like deja vu. Last year, we played Batavia in the sectional semifinal, and it was the same score,” noted DiNuzzo. “We’ll see what happens. It’s going to be a battle, and something that’s hopefully we could rise to.”
Batavia finished the season with a record of 9-8-4 and graduates nine players from its roster.
"We had a pretty good plan for the match today," said coach Mark Gianfrancesco. "St. Charles East is a wonderful team and has had a successful season. We knew it was going to be challenging.
"We did not have a great showing in the first match (a 5-1 DuKane Conference road loss May 4), and we wanted to make sure we were ready to compete today. I thought we did a nice job in the first half and had some decent chances. Our energy seemed better. We were winning a good bit of the 50/50 balls, which allowed us to counter.
"We needed to keep that going in the second half. Unfortunately they scored on what looked like a cross into the box, and not a shot, that floated into the back side of the net. The goal seemed to give them some energy that they did not necessarily have up to that point.
"I thought we did a good job responding after the goal. When St. Charles East moved no. 4 (Williams) out after the goal, we pushed Brooke Carlson, who did a wonderful job on (Williams), up into the midfield to get a little more push for a goal.
"The second goal was tough, and we just needed to go for it with four up-top to try and pull one back with under 20 minutes, to no avail.
"I thought the girls played well and competed. "
Though the Bulldogs final record wasn't flashy, it featured several meemorable score lines against ranked teams. Batavia beat Naperville North (4-3, March 23), and tied defending Class 3A state champion Metea Valley (2-2, April 22) and conference champ St. Charles North (2-2, May 11).
The team avenged a conference loss to Wheaton North (2-1, April 6) with a 3-1 upset win for the program's second-consecutive regional title.
"We had a nice season with some signature results against some good competition. Winning a second regional in a row, the first time in my tenure, says a lot about the group after we graduated a good bit last year. It was nice to have the opportunity to coach this group of players."
Senior midfielder Kailey Hansen will continue her soccer career next season at Division I Purdue Fort Wayne.
GK: Addi Cooper
D: Hannah Hickman
D: Delia Perfect
D: Addison Lowe
MF: Brooke Carlson
MF: Alexa Schorr
MF: Sarah Koziol
MF: Kailey Hansen
F: Avery Solomon
F: Lalia Figueras
F: Riley DiBiase
St. Charles East
GK: Sidney Lazenby
D: Tia Bernstein
D: Amanda Stepien
D: Mackenzie Loomis
D: Lauren Silvestri
MF: Kara Machala
MF: Alli Saviano
MF: Georggia Desario
F: Mia Raschke
F: Ella Stehman
F: Grace Williams
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Tatum Smith, fr., F, St. Charles East
SCE: Kara Machaka (Alli Saviano), 46th minute
SCE: Tatum Smith (Anika Dodrill) 59th minute
SCE: Grace Williams (Tia Bernstein) 65th minute