CHICAGO -- Fenwick wasn’t supposed to be here.
Not after losing 11 seniors, including a Chicagoland Soccer All-State player and players who combined to score 50 of the team’s 64 goals last season. Sophomore Kiera Mullarkey was the leading returning scorer after putting in seven goals last spring. No one else had more than two.
But yet, here the Friars were, one step away from a return trip to the Class AA state Final Four in Naperville.
“Honestly, I don’t think so. Probably not,” Fenwick manager Craig Blazer referenced whether he saw the Friars making this deep of a run at the beginning of the year. “So many positive things have happened this season, and I’m very proud of this group. To get to this point is quite a success and just a mark of determination and chemistry that these girls brought.
“I think we started to see it in training, every day what they were doing, being coachable. The response at Mother McAuley (a 2-2 finish in a Girls Catholic Athletic Conference Red Division away match March 28) showed some toughness, and we were able to execute. Our earlier game against De La Salle (a 1-1 deadlock April 25), coming back from that, really showed us what we can do.”
That same team stood in Fenwick’s path Tuesday.
The Friars knocked De La Salle out of the playoffs last year with a penalty kick victory after a scoreless match in the Brooks Supersectional.
That ended what had been, until that point, the best season in De La Salle girls program history. It included maiden regional title and sectional title victories.
With those two head-to-head matches in mind, De La Salle made sure that the third time against the Friars was its charm. The Meteors used two goals from Mia Ortega to post a 2-0 win in its Class 2A supersectional Tuesday afternoon.
The win rockets the Meteors to the state finals for the first time and guarantees the school only its second-ever state trophy and first for a girls sport. The only other state hardware in the Meteors trophy case came thanks to the boys basketball team was by the 1977 basketball team that took third at state in the big-school division in the two-class system. For a historical perspective, the school was established in 1889. The IHSA was formed in 1900.
“This is something we’ve been playing for the last few years,” De La Salle manager Carlos Nunez said. “We made history a year ago. And the experience we had last year with this team this year made us feel like we really had the chance to get here.
“Leadership and maturity have really been the catalyst. The girls work hard, practice the same, but bringing their work together was the key. Finding that togetherness, that trust.”
The game meant something even more for Ortega, who went down with an injury in last season against Fenwick.
“This is an amazing feeling,” she said. “Last year when we lost in penalties, I tore my ACL in that game. So, this means a lot, especially since we had played them last year. It means a lot not only to the players but the whole school.”
With the Meteors’ leading scorer Sissi Loza battling an injury, Ortega has had to step up to try to replace what Loza brought to the table. She’s responded in a big way, scoring in three of the Meteors’ playoff games.
The De La Salle manager is sure that Loza will be back to her normal spot in the starting XI for the finals.
“She got banged up in the sectional semifinal,” he said. “Great players play, and she’s one of them. I know she’ll be out there and give us what she has.”
After a relatively even first half, the Meteors broke the ice when Ortega drew a foul in the box with just over three minutes to go before the intermission.
The junior, who was the team’s goal-scorer when the two teams tied earlier in the season, buried her shot. Fenwick keeper Leah Hyland dived to her right. Ortega went to the opposite side.
“I really just try to be calm,” she said. “I know I have a lot of pressure on me, but I just know I had to time it and be precise with it.”
The goal sent the crowd, which lined all around the fences that surround the field, into a frenzy.
Ortega’s goal in the 46th minute had the crowd going even more crazy. The throng sensed that they were 34 minutes, 29 seconds away from seeing history being made.
Fenwick, meanwhile, stayed focused.
The Friars had been in positions life this before. Though they were down, they felt that their games against bigger schools throughout the year like New Trier, Loyola, Hinsdale Central and Oak Park and River Forest had prepared them for this moment.
“It seemed like after the two goals we finally settled in,” Blazer said. “They dropped off, but played well. We created a number of goal-scoring opportunities but nothing clear. So, you have to give them credit for that.”
“When we played the bigger 3A schools, tying them, winning, losing, keeping it close, even games like the Deerfield game (a 1-0 loss April 15) where we showed some heart,” Fenwick’s Grace Kapsch said. “Once we jelled as a team, we started to get better. It was great to see.”
Losing so much experience from last year’s squad meant that new players had to take on bigger roles, maybe ones they’d never had before.
One of them was Kapsch, who was recently named an All-State selection by the Illinois HIgh School Soccer Coaches Association.
“I felt like I had that responsibility from when the first game started because losing a bunch of the forwards was going to be tough,” she said. “They told me at the beginning that they were going to move me up, so I knew I had to take that responsibility and that opportunity and make the best out of it.
“I was proud of how I did it. It was my first year playing forward, so I’m proud of myself for how it turned out.”
“I’m really proud of how this team developed and how everybody stepped into their new roles,” Fenwick’s Fiona Roche said.
“We developed as a team, and I ended up making so many more friends because of this team. It was hard losing so many seniors. And it wasn’t just that we lost 11 field players, it was we lost 11 great players and leaders.”
There were plenty of moments that both Roche and Kapsch will remember. The pair of juniors hope, with so many players returning next year, that they can continue the success that they’ve help build.
Kapsch had another reason to be excited.
“This is my first year playing with my sisters, and that was amazing,” Kapsch said of playing with sophomores Kiera and Claire. “I know I’ll get to play with them next year, but this was really special. The Payton game was my favorite just because of how fast we were able to start and the goal and assists I was able to contribute.”
The elder Kapsch contributed a goal and two assists, and earned Chicagoland Soccer’s MVP of the Match honor in the 4-1 De La Salle Sectional win May 27.
De La Salle now prepares for their 11 a.m. semifinal against supersectional host Glenwood, which knocked out two-time defending state champion Triad 5-0 Tuesday evening.
“We just have to continue doing what we’re doing” Ortega said. “If we do that, and we really want it, we’ll get there.”
“The talk about history, the moment being big on us, that’s something we’ve been talking about,” Nunez said. “We know we have to be ready. Because of everything we’ve gone through with injuries this year and other players stepping up, we feel we are.”
GK: Leah Hyland
D: Ellie Dvorak
D: Maddie Rogowski
D: Lola Martinez
D: Emma Maria Basset
MF: Susie Shank
MF: Fiona Roche
MF: Kiera Kapsch
MF: Mary Brunick
F: Grace Kapsch
F: Kiera Mullarkey
De La Salle
GK: Emily Samuels
D: Sophia Torres
D: Vicky Luna
D: Lauren Torres
D: Joanna Mullen
MF: Imani Coleman
MF: Sissi Loza
MF: Samantha Velasco
F: Mia Ortega
F: Kennedi Carpenter
F: Dixie Zamago
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Mia Ortega, jr., F/MF, De La Salle
De La Salle: Mia Ortega (PK), 37th minute
De La Salle: Ortega (Kennedi Carpenter), 45th minute