NAPERVILLE -- The 2023 Class AA state title race ended on a hot Saturday afternoon at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium on the North Central College campus. For Benet, the final day of the season ended in heartbreak.
Gerard Oconer’s side entered the final against downstate power Glenwood with a 21-4-0 record, an 11-game win streak and a hunger to erase the disappointment of falling just short a year ago in the final to Triad. The chance to lift a second championship trophy in program history was in its sights.
However, in a matter of 40 seconds, that dream of glory was dashed by Glenwood’s Rowann and Rylann Law. The sister act produced a goal apiece in the 81st (Rowann) and 82nd minutes of the first overtime to give the Titans a 2-0 state championship win.
"It's a tough way to go out," said a solemn Oconer, who has had a marvelous six years at the Redwings helm and posted a 119-25-3 mark.
"This game of soccer can be a cruel one (losing) in the state final two years in a row is difficult for all of us in the Benet program. But right now I am so proud of this group of terrific young ladies, and credit to Glenwood, which is a very good team."
"It's not easy to lose in overtime,” star defender Sadie Sterbenz said. “But like (Oconer) said, someone has to win in this game. Unfortunately it was Glenwood, but I felt that our backline played great today and all year long. It was just a bad, group (breakdown) that allowed them to put those two goals in.”
Sterbenz, clearly one of the top center backs around, is tenacious, clever, resolute and simply loves defending. She revels at any opportunity to intercept passes or leave an opponent on the ground after one of her signature crunching tackles.
"We put all of our heart and effort into this game,” she said. “All of us, especially the seniors, wanted to erase the disappointment of losing here last season in the final, but we fell a little short today."
"(Sadie) has relentless energy, plays with her heart on her sleeve, and has so much fire in her game,” said her longtime friend and teammate, Reese MacDonald. “I saw it when we began playing together way back in park district soccer when we were five years old."
The pair, along with keeper Shannon Clark and midfielder Brinkley Douglas, proudly wore the captains armbands for their beloved Redwings club.
"We gave it our all and were so close today,” said MacDonald, who lost the last two seasons to an ACL. “For me, this has been a terrific ride with an incredible group of players and friends. Although right now it hurts to lose in this final, I know that we've all been very fortunate and lucky to be a part of an amazing team and program.”
The East Suburban Catholic Conference champions ran into a marvelous club in Glenwood (22-4-1).
Not only do the Titans enjoy the lethal family duo of team-leading scorers Rylan (42 goals, 9 assists) and Rowann (15, 7) Law, they also have a sturdy backline, beginning with 6-foot-1 Indiana University-bound Haden Vlcek, who is an athletic and commanding figure as one of the Titans central defenders.
"(Benet) was a really good team, but all year we've battled hard for 80 minutes against a really good schedule, which I feel like helped us prepare for just this weekend," began Vlcek.
"As this game went further and further without a goal, we knew it might go to overtime. But again, with the schedule we played, I felt like we were ready to play as long as we needed to in order to get the result we came here for."
The first 20 minutes was a wide open, box-to-box affair, with each side carving out a couple of quality chances.
Inside the first 10 minutes, Glenwood’s Erin Mansfield went wide as did Benet senior Anna Casmere.
The Redwings got a nice play from Gabby Hedden through to Ivana Vukas before Annie Fitzgerald forced Titans keeper Abi Stephens into action in the 11th minute.
Moments later, the Glenwood trio of Lyla Franke, Makenna Yeager and Rowann Law dazzled with some crafty play that saw Franke play a nice ball through the box. After Yeager dummied the ball, the awaiting Law at the back post misfired on her attempt on frame.
After this exchange, play evened out as both teams tightened things up in their own end while testing and teasing the other with early balls or service from their respected backlines.
It appeared Casmere solved the Titans trap when she ran onto a defense-breaking ball off the counter from Vukas, but a debatable offsides flag ended that chance for the Redwings in the 31st minute.
After seeing that effort stopped, the Redwings attack was up and running with speed, pace and purpose for the rest of the first period.
Rania Fikri, who bagged the early opener in the Redwings 2-0 semifinal win over Crystal Lake Central on Friday, lashed a wicked attempt that defender Ali Matthews parried out of danger with a nice touch.
The Redwings were able to create a pair of deep throws and corners to keep the Titans under pressure right up until the intermission, but had nothing to show for it on the scoreboard when the first 40 minutes was complete.
"We did a lot of good things offensively in that first half, and for that matter, the entire game, but we just could not put one into the back of the net when those opportunities presented themselves to us," said Oconer.
After the break, each side came out knowing the first goal might be the one that ensured victory.
Rylann Law zig-zagged her way into the box before going over the bar. On the other end of the park, a wonderfully paced early ball set Keira Petrucelli free, but Stephens won the 50-50 challenge. The ball spilled off her gloves, but the ever-alert Vlcek cleared the area.
While the attacks from both sides kept the backlines on high alert for the rest of regulation, it should be pointed out that with so much firepower poised to strike at any moment, the two wonderful defensive units stood out.
"We improved each time out and trusted in each other so much," said Sterbenz of her Benet partnership with Bailey Abbott, Nora Hanson and Gabby Hedden. The group conceded just 15 goals on the year and tied the school record with 18 clean-sheets.
Matthews and Vlcek were a magnificent duo in the middle of the Glenwood defense. Outside backs Delaney Kyes and Yeager the perfect complement that created an airtight bunch along the back.
Sterbenz thumped a close-range header off an Ivana Vukus corner and watched that effort blocked on the way in. Her return rebound shot, a side-footed attempt, was also stopped to keep the game goal-less.
Rylann Law went over at the end of a counter moments later.
Benet fans howled in protest when a hard tackle against Petrucelli by Ali Matthews in the box was judged as nothing more than that according to referee Miguel Chavez, who also quickly waved off protests by Redwings players in the area.
A frantic end to regulation saw a deep throw into the Glenwood box cleared, before Vukas stung the gloves of Stephens from in-close.
With under 30 seconds left in regulation, Benet had a chance to end it with a corner kick opportunity. The Redwings brought every field player up, and Vukas arced her service into the box. A blocked shot and save ensued.
During this sequence, Sterbenz, and MacDonald agreed there was a hand ball on the play, but there was no call.
An early, extra-time breakdown doomed Benet. Vlcek’s serve from midfield near the near sideline landed well inside the box. A communication breakdown ensued as Clark came slowly off her line as her defenders followed the ball as it moved toward her. Rowann Law saw the opportunity of a lifetime and got a touch on it. The ball rolled into the goal 1 minute, 27 seconds into the first overtime.
"Haden played a great ball (in) and the defender was letting her keeper get to the ball,” Rowan Law said. “When she didn't grab it, I just stuck my foot in there and got to the ball before anyone else."
The backbreaker came when Rylann Law attacked down the right side. She opened just enough space to fire home her 42nd goal of the season 40 seconds later.
"Just two quick lapses in our box, and they made us pay for it," lamented Sterbenz, who shared the Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match honor with Vlcek.
"(This) group has given Benet soccer fans so many memories and great play," began Oconer. “Especially our seniors, who have accomplished so much since arriving here.
"What they have done will likely never be matched: two state runnerup finishes, three conference titles, a 61-11-0 record in three years. Just some amazing soccer played by a wonderful group who have worn the Benet uniform with pride."
Oconer will lose eight seniors but return seven starters.
Sterbenz was named the East Suburban Conference Player of the Year. Oconer took the Manager of the Year accolade and Casmere, Clark, Fikri, MacDonald and Petrucelli were named all-conference.
G- Shannon Clark
D- Gabby Hedden
D- Sadie Sterbenz
D- Bailey Abbott
D- Nora Hanson
M- Keira Petrucelli
M- Reese MacDonald
M- Annie Fitzgerald
F- Rania Fikri
F- Ivana Vukas
F- Anna Casmere
G- Abi Stephens
D- Carly Wilcoxen
D- Ali Matthews
D- Haden Vlcek
D- Delaney Kyes
M- Lyla Franke
M- Makenna Yeager
M- Erin Mansfield
F- Mia O'Neill
F- Rylann Law
F- Rowann Law
Chicagoland Soccer MVPs of the Match: Sadie Sterbenz, sr., D, Benet; Haden Vlcek, jr., D, Glenwood
Officials: Miguel Chavez (center); Dan Trost (AR1); Mark Filta (AR2); Stephan Kaak (4th)
G: Rowann Law, 82'
G: Rylann Law, 83'