Back-to-back 17-win seasons in 2022 and 2023 continued Morton’s emergence as a strong program. And the best may be yet to come.
“I feel we have a strong core of juniors that’ll be coming back next year for their senior season,” Morton coach Jim Bageanis said of a current junior group that includes 2023 top scorers Carisma Rosales, an IHSSCA All-State Team selection, and All-Sectional choice Aaliyah Leanos.
“I think we have huge potential for next year. We will also be bringing back several sophomores and two freshmen that were with us all this year. They all got a taste of varsity soccer and will be used to the speed-difference next season when they come to tryouts.”
The Mustangs closed the regular-season at high speed this spring, posting a 6-2-0 record over their last eight games.
The two setbacks in that stretch were not too shabby either: a 1-0 loss to West Suburban Conference Gold Division champion and eventual sectional qualifier Downers Grove South, and a tournament loss on penalty kicks (2-2 regulation, 4-2 PKs) to Iowa Class 1A state semifinalist Johnston (Ia.).
“I think the team grew as the season went on,” Bageanis said, “and played very well over the two-week span during our Iowa trip and the week after.
“The girls played some quality opponents and really competed well as a full team. We really moved the ball well, and we were strong defensively throughout that two-week span.”
The Johnston (Ia.) game was part of a 2-1-0 record at the Tournament of Champions on April 28 and 29 in Bettendorg, Ia. The road trip produced benefits on and off the field.
“The season highlight was probably playing in Iowa,” Morton senior Brianna Avalos said. “We played the best games out there, and we had fun at the hotel. But when it came to game time we locked in, and it showed.”
Morton had five shutouts during its late-season run and recorded nine for the season. In eight other games, the Mustangs allowed one goal. The biggest of those came May 9 in the now seemingly annual May showdown of league unbeatens against Downers Grove South
“We knew we were going to have a chance to contend for conference this year, and we did,” Bageanis said. “We battled Downers South 1-0, and we had our chances to tie that game or maybe have the lead early.
“Our girls battled every game. They play hard, and that’s all I can ask.”
Morton’s success was the product of a nucleus of players from all four classes.
“Obviously (juniors) Carisma and Aaliyah had great years for us,” Bageanis said. “And (sophomore midfielder) Stephanie Salmeron doesn’t get enough credit in the middle for what she does for us defensively. She covers a lot of ground the entire game.
“Brianna Avalos (all-sectional honorable mention) has been a four-year starter for us, and she plays her heart out every game. And we had newcomers like Adamary Huitron: she’s a freshman; and she improved every game. She’s going to be helpful over the three years after this for us.”
Helpful barely begins to sum up Avalos’ part on and off the field during her Morton career.
“She’s been a leader the last two years, and she’s just a good kid all around,” Bageanis said. “She sets a good example for the girls. She gets them together (in huddles), and they listen to her. And she’s been our boys team manager for four years. She’s always been around.”
As much as Avalos meant to Morton soccer, the feeling was mutual.
“They’re like my family,” Avalos said. “I was on varsity for four years, and I have nothing but great things to say about the program. Overall, they’ve been really good to me.”
While the hugely successful 34-13-1 record over the last two years put a nice cap on the Morton seniors’ careers, their high school days started less than ideally when the COVID-19 shutdown canceled the 2020 season and shortened the next campaign to a 9-5-0 record in the spring of 2021.
“The juniors and seniors coped pretty well with the COVID situation,” Bageanis said. “They still kept working on their games privately. Then once they were able to get outside, they were happy to start playing against other players and competing once again (after 14 months between games).”
Once able to make her Morton debut, Avalos was eager to help build on the winning tradition that was building before the long shutdown.
“Obviously you look up to everybody before you (the upperclassmen in 2021 and 2022),” she said. “And seeing them play their hearts out, it’s really motivating. I know when I was in my freshman and sophomore year, I really wanted to win for them.”
Wins were the norm, and Avalos grew into a key and steady performer on the squad.
“Obviously it’s just keeping a good mindset, always thinking positive,” she said. “And not letting my emotions get to me. Mistakes happen – I learned that.
“You can’t be blaming anybody. It’s a team effort. And you learn to play as a team.
“It all just goes back to mentality. If you want to win, you have to be here to win.”
Goalkeeper Cindy Jimenez, defender Pamela Hernandez and midfielder Ariana Valdovinos were among the other senior starters for Morton.
“Ariana Valdovinos was a four-year player too, and another good leader,” Bageanis said.
Valdovinos and senior Fatima Garduza were Morton’s third and fourth leading scorers of 2023.
Rosales had three goals and two assists in the three-game winning streak following Morton’s return from Iowa. The Mustangs stayed in top form entering the postseason.
Morton defeated Willowbrook 5-1 in the regional semifinals, breaking open the game with three unanswered second half goals.
Then with a chance at the first back-to-back regional titles in program history, Morton grabbed an early 1-0 lead over York on a Rosales penalty kick before a Finley Ewald hat-trick powered York to a 4-1 comeback win.
“They stretched the field on us a lot,” Bageanis said. “(Numbers) 14 (York’s Michaela Quinn) and 10 (Ewald) are hard to run with. We didn’t have the personnel to do it for 80 minutes, and we knew that ahead of time. We were just trying to hang in there.”
While that victory proved elusive, plenty of accomplishments came this season in both wins and friendships.
“It was our connection overall,” Avalos said of the Mustangs’ key to success. “We’re all good people. It showed out on the field and showed outside the field.
“It was just a great group of girls. I wouldn’t ask for a different group of girls to play with in my last year. It was overall a really good year.”