NAPERVILLE -- A magical five-year run for Benet is one win from a nice crowning feat.
State champions in 2019, an undefeated regular season in 2021 and second in Class AA last year, the Redwings (21-4-0) moved to within one win of another title with Friday’s 2-0 state semifinal win over Crystal Lake Central (18-4-0).
Benet faces Glenwood at 1 p.m. Saturday at North Central College for the championship, not only looking to add to its impressive recent run but produce a bigger picture feat.
“Bringing the first state championship of this year back to Benet,” freshman Ivana Vukas said. “Every other team (girls basketball and volleyball and boys basketball) has gotten second (at state) or hasn't made it through this far.”
The Redwings didn’t waste much time Friday turning up the heat in 90-degree conditions. Just 5:56 into the game, Reese MacDonald’s cross found Rania Fikri open in the box
Fikri put added drama into what would be the game’s deciding goal, lining her 15-yard shot low off the left post before it spun across the crease and just inside the front lower right corner of the net for a 1-0 lead.
“I was just praying it was going to go in,” Fikri said. “I took a touch and then just tried to stay composed, and then I saw it hit the post, but then go over to the other post. I was confused if it even went in. But that worked out.
“We wanted to get that first goal. That really changed the momentum of the half.”
The junior has nine goals this spring, and a knack for unusual ones.
“Rania scored a very similar type goal against Kaneland in the sectional semis,” Benet coach Gerard Oconer said. “Where the ball was stuck underneath her, and she kind of scooped it and somehow it ends up in the goal. We don't know how.
“It doesn't always look great, but if it goes in it goes.”
Said Crystal Lake Central coach Sarah Fack: “Obviously in the first half getting that goal scored on us early is not an easy thing to come back from. Especially on a hot day like this and against a team like Benet.”
The Redwings were hardly done with their early blitz.
In the eighth minute, Anna Casmere’s left-side run and left-footed 15-yarder was denied on a low save by the Tigers’ Addison Cleary. Casmere soon followed with another shot off a Vukas pass that Cleary dove to deflect wide.
"(It) wasn't the start that we wanted to have,” Tigers sophomore Lizzie Gray said, “but I thought we settled in later in the first half and came out to play a much better second half.”
The first half part of that improvement began to emerge in the 22nd minute.
Midway through the half, the Tigers challenged Benet goalkeeper Shannon Clark.
In the 22nd minute, Clark came fast off her line to grab a line drive free kick by Maddie Gray.
After enduring a 25th-minute MacDonald 35-yard free kick just over the crossbar, Crystal Lake Central again pushed for an equalizer.
An 18-yard chance for Addison Schaffer ended with a Clark two-handed block in the 33rd minute, and a 38th-minute Tigers corner kick was also repelled.
After the break, as in the first half, a Benet chance around five minutes in produced insurance.
This time, Sadie Sterbenz’s long send sprung freshman Vukas up the middle on a breakaway. Racing into the box, Vukas lined an 8-yard shot into the net, and Benet led 2-0.
“To see Ivana’s skill level as a freshman,” Oconer said. “She's very technical, and showed good awareness to know she had time on the breakaway, and she didn't have to rush the shot. Way too many times players panic and shoot the ball over the top or shoot too early. She shot at just the right time.”
It was Vukas’ team high 15th goal of the season.
“Actually, it's been way above expectations and really fun,” Vukas said. “The seniors have been so good leading me through it and keeping me up.”
And as for Friday’s goal?
“We just wore down the defense a ton,” she said. “It's super hot out, so we knew that if we just wore them down…
“Eventually we just played a through-ball over, and I just tucked it in.”
Said Fikri: “It was really great to get that second goal, because we knew we could just rely on our defense to help us. And it was going to be hard for them to score two goals.”
But in their first state semifinal appearance, Crystal Lake Centeral didn’t go away easily.
A well-placed Gray corner kick send with 30:10 to go produced an Olivia Anderson header just over the net. Then with 15 minutes left, Clark again came off her line to grab a Gray free kick.
“We've been rock solid in the back all season,” Oconer said. “We just tied our school record for shutouts in a season with 18. That's kind of been a goal for this defense all year, and now tomorrow is our chance to break it.
“The difference with our backline this year is they're very athletic. They can all handle the ball. And when you have Reese MacDonald in front on them and Shannon Clark behind them, you've got to get through multiple layers.
“Nora Hanson I thought played really, really well today in the back, and Reese was an animal again winning balls in the middle.”
Benet’s record-tying defense would endure one final scare in the final seconds. But before that, it would take a great double effort by Tigers defender Paiton Hulata to deny Benet a bigger lead.
With the goalkeeper out of the net after trying to deny a Benet rush, Hulata blocked not just one Redwings open-net shot at the line, but a rebound try as well to keep the score 2-0.
“(Benet) is a great team,” Hulata said, “but I thought we played them even in the second half right up until the final whistle. Which shows there is no quit in this team.”
Her own never quit play was followed by a more conventional defensive denial of a Benet threat with 1:50 left, when Cleary made a diving deflection wide left of Annie Fitzgerald’s 25-yard shot.
Benet’s defense then again showed its prowess in a 35-second sequence that followed a counterattack of the ensuing Redwings corner kick. Chloe Sentman cleared an emerging Tigers attack 40 yards out, which sprung a Casmere rush that ended with a Vukas shot over the net.
But to Crystal Lake Central’s great credit, the stifling heat, exhaustion and a 2-0 deficit didn’t deter the Tigers from battling to the end. With just 10 seconds left, Anderson burst in on left wing on a counterattack and lined a 20-yard shot off the crossbar.
“I think in the second half we came out stronger and played our game a little bit better,” Fank said. “We had some chances. You can't ask for more than playing up to that final minute when we hit the crossbar at the end.
“It wasn't the result we wanted, but I thought we improved throughout the game and had some great efforts and great chances. We're just disappointed at the outcome obviously.”
Benet went from the last second scare to celebration moments later. The win gave them a title game showdown with Glenwood and a shot to avenge its 1-0 loss a downstate team in the 2022 Class AA finals.
“They're a very good team with a tremendous striker up-top,” Oconer said of Glenwood, “and really good in the back and on set pieces. That's going to be a challenge for us.
“Obviously the heat is going to come into play. We're hoping that our depth shows, and we're able to wear them down a little bit. But we need to play calm and composed. Today we did that for moments but just not consistently.
“This (Friday’s game) was not our best game by any stretch of the imagination. So we're going to have to play much better tomorrow. We'll need to play at the level we did Tuesday night with Notre Dame (Peoria). If we do that, we have a really good shot.”
Players like Fikri who were around for the 2022 state final hope the repeat trip pays off.
“I think last year having that experience has prepared me more for this year,” she said, “because I've gone through it once before. I know to stay calm and composed. Even though it's a state game, it's just a game, and we just have to play our game.”
GK: Shannon Clark
D: Gabby Hedden
D: Bailey Abbott
D: Nora Hanson
D: Sadie Sterbenz
M: Annie Fitzgerald
M: Rania Fikri
M: Keira Petrucelli
M: Reese MacDonald
F: Anna Casmere
F: Ivana Vukas
Crystal Lake Central
GK: Addison Cleary
D: Shaylee Gough
D: Kalissa Kaiser
D: Paiton Hulata
D: Chelsea Iles
M: Olivia Anderson
M: Maddie Gray
M: Katie Barth
F: Lizzie Gray
F: Jillian Mueller
F: Brooklynn Carlson
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Ivana Vukas, fr. F, Benet
B: Rania Fikri (Reese MacDonald), 6’
B: Ivana Vukas (Sophie Sterbenz), 46’