ST. CHARLES -- If St. Charles East seems a step ahead of its opponent on any given night, Fighting Saints senior Ryan Groselak says that you can chalk it up to a preseason training ritual.
“For nine-straight days,” said Groselak, “right before the season starts, we just go straight conditioning. Running in the morning, running in the afternoon, all the time. I really think it helps out a lot.”
It sure did Wednesday night in the title match of Orange Pool at the St. Charles Invitational.
The Saints scored quickly after intermission and then held off Maine South the rest of the way to win 1-0 at Norris Stadium.
The victory gave St. Charles East, which is ranked eighth in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, a perfect three wins in their group and propelled them to the championship of the tournament.
The championship match against no. 21 St. Charles North is scheduled for noon Saturday.
“We really wanted to make it to the championship game,” said St. Charles East senior defender Brandon Garland, “because it’s going to be played at St. Charles North. That’s our rival, and it’ll be a good showing for us to be there.”
“We had to make sure that we didn’t let up tonight,” added Garland. “We came out in the second half knowing that if we could get one, we might be able to put these guys (Maine South) away.”
A quirky goal in the 43rd minute by Saints senior forward Marc Walker was the difference.
“It’s unfortunate that a deflection off a free kick turned out to be the only goal of the night,” said Maine South coach Dan States. “The game was largely played between the boxes, and I thought our kids did a good job of keeping the play in front of them.”
“They (St. Charles East) are a good team; we are a good team. It probably should have gone to penalty kicks tonight.”
States added that the Hawks are dealing with some injury issues at the moment.
“We’re a little knicked up right now,” said States. “We’re not playing with a full deck as it were, but that’s a part of playing in tournaments, part of the early going. We need to be more effective in the final third getting opportunities. We started to, late in the second half, but we need to be more consistent.”
Both teams were a bit tentative in the early going, but St. Charles East had a great chance in just the fifth minute.
Deep in Maine South territory, Saints forward Omar Ontiveros knocked a pinpoint cross right in front of the Maine South goal, but a header from teammate Griffin Counts at point-blank range flew over the crossbar.
St. Charles East hit a free kick into the box in the 22nd minute from 42 yards out, but Maine South senior defender Darragh Cronnolly made a stellar play to boot the ball out of harm's way.
The Hawks waited until late in the first 40 minutes to get an opportunity. A free kick from 43 yards found senior forward Zach Malinsky in front of the Saints net, but his shot was just a bit too tall.
That sent the two sides to halftime at nil-nil. Groselak said that during the break, the Saints talked about keeping the course.
“We told each other that we had to maintain -- stay controlled, and stop coasting,” he said. “We wanted to get back out there and keep pressing.”
Then just minutes after the beginning of the second half, Walker found himself standing over the ball 36 yards away from the Maine South goal line after a Hawks foul.
After a slight hesitation, Walker connected on a laser that bounced off the back of a Maine South defender and sailed past the Hawks keeper.
“Marc is dangerous around the box,” said St. Charles East coach Vince DiNuzzo. “He was able to hit it well, and the deflection gave us the goal and the lead.”
“Last season Marc hit a bunch of free kicks,” added Garland, “so I was confident that he could put it in. And we got a little lucky.”
Just two minutes later, Walker had another free kick and sent a strong shot toward the net, but Maine South keeper Alex Gallinger, who had no chance on the goal, was able to turn it away.
Walker was shaken up after a collision in the 55th minute and did not return.
“He’s seeing the trainer right now,” said DiNuzzo after the game.
St. Charles East midfielder Aiden Maloney was instrumental to the Saints efforts to keep Maine South off the scoreboard as the Hawks pressed forward for the equalizer, especially in the final 10 minutes.
That’s when the Saints put their extra conditioning to good use.
“It’s definitely tiring,” said Groselak of defending in the final minutes. “Just running up and down the field, especially where I was, on the left side playing wing back. But we just had to maintain as a team.
“This is a team sport, and we were working together. We got the goal (from Walker), then we had to finish the game.”
Classmate Garland added that it was nerve-wracking trying to hold off the Hawks in the final 10 minutes. If Maine South had tied the game, it would have gone straight to a shootout per tournament rules.
“They (the Hawks) were pushing for that tie,” said Garland. “We just had to lock down, but it’s always tough to lock down in the last few minutes. You don’t want any type of deflection to find its way into the goal, but down the stretch we played really well and put the game away.”
Maine South had three, golden opportunties to even the match in the final 5 minutes.
First Hawks senior defender Jacob Walendzewicz sent a long ball down the right flank where Will Smucker ran it down.
The junior midfielder’s shot in the 76th minute skittered past the goal post.
Senior midfielder Dexter Kelleher had a chance from the box less than 60 seconds later but it went wide.
The final opportunity for Maine South was its best.
With the clock ticking down near zero, Hawks defender Sam Middendorf sent a pass into the center of the pitch near the Saints goal, but Smucker’s shot was saved by Saints keeper Jordan Rolon.
The scoreboard hit 00:00 moments later, and St. Charles East celebrated its title game advancement.
“The last eight minutes, we kind of embraced the pressure,” said DiNuzzo. “We let them (Maine South) have the ball a little bit. We’re trying to get comfortable with working without the ball and closing out tight games.
“I actually thought we had a number of chances to get a second goal. We created a bunch of opportunities in the final third on dead balls, we just didn’t get a chance to put any of them in.”
Maine South coach States thought both teams had difficulty in the final third.
“We’ve got to do a better job of that, moving forward,” added the coach.
Maine South’s 6-foot-4 senior forward Nick Milkowski was one of the Hawks players sidelined by injury Wednesday. He could only watch helplessly from the bench as the outcome slipped away.
“It’s tough, real tough,” said Milkowski of having to sit out of such an important matchup. “But you’ve got to accept it and take it day by day.”
The senior said that he had a lingering injury, a sprained ankle from tryouts, and he aggravated it during the Hawks tourney win over Wheaton Academy.
“I was just getting back (to 100 percent), and then I stepped on a kid's foot and rolled it again. The hope is to be back to play on Saturday. I just wanted to be out there today to help the team win. But being on the sidelines, I felt like I still had a part to play.
“I wanted to bring my team up, bring them together, encourage them to play, and keep them focused and dedicated. So far this year we’ve been improving each game. We’ve been connecting more and more as the season goes on, and I believe we’re going to find even more chemistry and play more fluidly.
“I’m pretty optimistic for the rest of the season.”
Maine South will finish the tournament in the third place match against no. 10 West Chicago at 9 a.m. Saturday at St. Charles East.
GK: Alex Gallinger
D: Jacob Walendzewicz
D: Sam Middendorf
D: Darragh Cronnolly
D: Wyatt Kelleher
MF: Dexter Kelleher
MF: Sebastian Bonifacy
MF: Will Smucker
MF: Michal Tkaczyk
MF: Cristian Abdala
F: Zach Malinsky
St. Charles East
GK: Jordan Rolon
D: Brandon Garland
D: Griffin Counts
D: Jake Walker
D: Michael Greszenko
D: Garrett Melton
MF: Giuseppe Avendano
MF: Aiden Maloney
F: Ryan Groselak
F: Marc Walker
F: Omar Ontiveros
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Marc Walker, sr., F, St. Charles East
St. Charles East: M. Walker (unassisted), 43’