NAPERVILLE — The state tournament Final Four is the ultimate emotional elevator. For three teams, the exhilaration of qualifying will be crushed with an inevitable loss.
Navigating those heights and depths is a peculiar dance.
“It was the first time in our history girls soccer had ever made it this far. We really went out there to play for each other and prove ourselves,” Lincoln-Way East forward Cami Butler said.
In a fascinating way, opponent Libertyville felt strangely liberated.
The lopsided 5-0 loss against Barrington meant there were no lingering regrets about what might have been.
The quick turnaround was the ultimate balm.
“The whole team had a bunch of grit. We did not stop working until the game was done,” Libertyville freshman midfielder Shea Krakowski said.
“I think that’s what drove us to be successful, because we were willing. We were a young team that just never gave up. We were determined to meet our goals.”
Two teams with nothing to lose, playing for the game, teammates and themselves, put on a rollicking show.
In a blaze of glory, the teams combined for three goals during a riveting five-minute stretch of the second half.
Libertyville midfielder Molly Koch earned the game-winner by finishing off a beautiful through-ball from Jenna Krakowski for a 2-1 victory in the third place game of the Class 3A state tournament at North Central College on Saturday night.
LIbertyville (18-3-2) captured its second third place state trophy in the last three years.
Jenna Krakowski was a sophomore on the 2021 team. She played her final game, rocking through the middle and slotting a ball in space that Koch beautifully ran on to and finished from about 12 yards in the 66th minute.
Her freshman sister Shea scored the Wildcats’ first goal in the 61st minute.
Their mother, Nikki Klainos-Krakowski, was a starter on the Wildcats’ 1991 state championship team.
Libertyville ended the season on a 15-1-1 run.
The only losses during the regular-season were consecutive losses against Naperville North and Evanston in group play of the Lou Malnati’s Deep Dish Classic.
“At first, it was a little rocky in the season,” Koch said. “I think our game against Warren (where they scored six second half goals in a 6-0 North Suburban Conference win April 18) was a turning point that gave us a lot of confidence.
“Our team is just super close, and it was easy for us to come back after those two losses and continue to play.”
Lincoln-Way East (21-6-0) built off development, chemistry and toughness to become the surprise entrant of the state finals.
Three of the four teams — O’Fallon, Barrington, Libertyville — qualified for the state finals two years ago.
Hinsdale Central’s double-overtime 2-1 upset of Lyons in the Reavis Sectional championship May 26 prevented a replica.
Lincoln-Way East also played through disappointment and adversity, forging its identity in the process.
A 2-0 loss against rival Lincoln-Way Central on April 29 paved the way.
The defeat was its second of the season against the rival Knights, who finished third in the 2022 state tournament.
“Losing the second time to Central was one of those cruel games,” Lincoln-Way East coach Mike Murphy said.
“We thought we played a little better than them, but they had the ability the score on set pieces. I think that game made us realize we had to defend set pieces differently. That loss made us work harder.”
The Griffins reeled off nine-consecutive wins before their 2-0 semifinal loss against eventual state champion O’Fallon.
Lincoln-Way East worked past the nerves and stage fright of their Friday night game.
The team, which has only four seniors, was livelier, quicker to the ball and more active in the run of play Saturday.
The youth movement, epitomized by Butler, a junior, sophomore midfielder Payton Lucitt and sophomore forward Ellie Feigl, catalyzed the team.
In the 11th minute, junior defender Julia Chonarzewski had brilliant contributions. They started with a blast from the right wing that Libertyville keeper Kate Hopma tipped over the bar. On the ensuing corner, Hopma snared her header.
“Third place games are all about pride,” Murphy said. “We talked before about this game is the last time we were going to play as a group.
“We said play this for school pride, for our community and the parents.”
LIbertyville countered with the strong play of its middle attack with the Krakowski sisters and Koch.
Forward Ellie Rebmann, the leading scorer, also pushed up and created some dangerous opportunities.
Libertyville offset the early pressure by Lincoln-Way East.
Junior defender Maddy Kopola symbolized the Wildcats grace, toughness and desire.
Playing after getting stitches and passing concussion protocol due to a nasty collision in the Barrington game, she was back in her customary role, albeit with white gauze wrapped around her forehead.
“We have a great passion for the game, and I think we just started connecting in that second half and taking our chances,” Shea Krakowski said.
The freshman broke through for the Wildcats in the 61st minute.
Junior defender Erin Kelly trapped a ball on the right wing and played a beautiful cross that Shea Krakowski finished from about four yards.
“I think we were just developing through the field, and Erin just came and was driving and made a beautiful cross,” Shea Krakowski said.
“I just came in, and tagged it in. It was one of those goals where everybody played a part. You need everybody to have a role if we are going to successful in winning.”
Just like that, Lincoln-Way East seemed cursed. Despite holding the advantage in possession and quality of chances, the Griffins stared down a sudden deficit.
It was only temporary.
Moments later, Butler broke free and got behind the Wildcats’ backline. She blasted a shot from the left wing that hit off the far post.
Lucitt was beautifully positioned and smashed home the rebound in the 62nd minute for the equalizer and her second goal of the season.
“I think coming back with a goal so quickly showed that we didn’t give up, or hang our heads, even when the tables turned on us,” Butler said.
“We knew that one goal did not mean the game was over.”
Consistent with the second half rhythm of the game, the deadlock was temporary.
Koch ended the season with 12 goals after her game-winner four minutes later.
Shea Krakowski finished the spring with an impressive 16 goals and five assists, the final helper led to the win.
Her sister Jenna ended her prep career with five goals and eight assists.
“Like Jenna said, we are all connected on the field,” Koch said. “I feel like we all know where everybody likes to get the ball, what runs people are going to make, and what runs people want to make.”
Koch earned the Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match honor for her excellent play.
“I saw Jenna coming in with no real pressure of her. I made the run, and I got through, which I was not sure whether I was going to be able or not,” Koch said.
“I looked up, and the ball was there.”
Lincoln-Way East was led in scoring by Butler and Feigl ended up with 17 goals apiece.
Freshman midfielder Elizabeth Burfeind also impressed with 11 goals and nine assists.
This was the Griffins’ first state trophy.
The young talent could add to that.
Coach Murphy led now-shuttered Lincoln-Way North to a fourth place finish in 2014.
After the school closed in the spring 2016, he took over the program at Lincoln-Way East the following year.
He won his 200th-career game earlier this season.
“The North team was a group loaded with seniors, and they were hard workers,” Murphy said. “We also had some outstanding players like Bianca Galassini and Lexi Cesario.
“This team was younger without standout players, but played great as a team. The team had great chemistry and created great friendships. Both teams hold something special in my heart.”
GK: Mattea Arroyo
D: Camden Cosich
D: Mia Hedrick
D: Emily Herlihy
D: Hannah Tokarski
MF: Kara Waishwell
MF: Brooklyn Mortell
MF: Elizabeth Burfeind
MF: Breanna Herlihy
F: Cami Butler
F: Madison Dziedzic
GK: Kate Hopma
D: Mabelle Kosowski
D: Erin Kelly
D: Maddy Kopala
D: Cara Stratton
MF: Molly Koch
MF: Tess McGormley
MF: Pru Babat
MF: Shea Krakowski
MF: Jenna Krakowski
F: Ellie Rebmann
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Molly Koch, jr., MF, Libertyville
L: Shea Krakowski (Erin Kelly), 61st minute
LWE: Payton Lucitt (Cami Butler), 62nd minute
L: Molly Koch (Jenna Krakowski), 66th minute