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Game story: Stokes scores 4 vs. Benet, put Naperville North back in Best of West final

By Matt LeCren, 09/02/23, 3:15PM CDT


Huskies advance to 9th-straight title match, meet Naperville Central at 6 p.m. tonight

Stokes fires home four to send Naperville North past Benet into Best of the West final – 9/2/23
By Matt LeCren
NAPERVILLE – Naperville North junior forward Jaxon Stokes wasn’t happy with his production during the first three games of the season.

He changed that in Game 4. And how.

Stokes broke through in a big way Saturday morning, scoring four goals to lead the host Huskies to an impressive 5-2 victory over Benet in the Best of the West pool finale for both teams.

The win gave Naperville North (3-1-0) a spot in Saturday night’s 6 p.m. championship game at Naperville Central’s Memorial Stadium.

“I think it’s all a confidence thing. I came back and people were expecting high things from me, and I had a lot of pressure on my shoulders,” Stokes said. “I started off slow, and I kind of felt like I was letting myself down, not playing to my true ability.

“So, I just kept trying and kept working hard and finally pushed through, and the results just came.”

Stokes tallied one goal in his previous 2023 matches. The returning Chicagoland Soccer All-Stater doubled that total by converting a penalty kick to open the scoring at the 28:57 mark of the first half.

That seemed to soften up Benet’s defense, which conceded again just 71 seconds later. Noah Radeke burst in from the right wing and fired a point-blank shot that was rejected by Benet goalkeeper Drew Connell. But Radeke tracked down the rebound and finished inside the right post for a 2-0 lead.

The Redwings (2-2-1) kept the deficit at two until halftime and made things interesting when defender Nick Nirtaut headed a corner kick from Jack Wesley off the underside of the crossbar and in with 36:57 to go in the second half.

But North grabbed the momentum right back, with Stokes bagging three goals on his next four shots.

“North has a good team,” said Benet first-year coach Matt Klosterman. “I thought we actually played pretty well, but every time we made a mistake, they were in the final third. They really punished us today.

“They’ve got some dangerous players. Jaxon is a good player, and they have other guys who are good players, too.”

That talent was on full display in the second half as Stokes scored on three tremendous plays with help from his teammates.

The first came after Hindo Allie made a crunching tackle to steal the ball from a Benet defender in the box. The senior midfielder then crossed the ball in front to Stokes, who was about 14 yards out and well-defended. He then turned and ripped a low shot inside the right post for a 3-1 lead with 30:42 remaining.

Stokes’ next strike was just as powerful, upstaged only by the assist, which came off the foot of junior midfielder Niko Ladas, who made the play of the game to set it up.

Ladas ran nearly 70 yards to chase down a long, clearing pass. He beat a Benet defender to the ball on the right wing, fought off a challenge to get into the box and then lofted a perfect cross to a wide-open Stokes for a back-post header and a 4-1 lead in the 54th minute.

“That was Huskies soccer,” Naperville North coach Jim Konrad said of Ladas’ play. “He ran 70 yards, fought a guy off, won it, played a gorgeous ball back post and helped make Stokes’ day.”

Stokes lauded the assist.

“That was great,” Stokes said. “He kept fighting, even though that was a lost ball. Some people wouldn’t even go for that, and he got it and gave me a perfect ball.”

It was the type of effort Konrad has been used to seeing from Ladas.

“I saw him when he was 8 years old, and I knew that kid is a Huskies soccer player,” Konrad said. “His brother, George, was on two state title teams.

“Niko is a kid that’s been on the fringe of the starting lineup. He battled so hard today.

“Niko has been that way – just a tough, hard-nosed kid – since he was little, and we saw it today. Hindo’s tackle to win us that chance to score and then Niko’s tackle to win that ball, that’s what really changed the momentum today.”

As precise and powerful as Stokes’ second and third goals were, he actually thought his fourth one was his best. That came with 9:16 remaining on a burst into the box and finish to the far post to boost the margin to 5-1.

Konrad thinks Stokes is just the second Huskie he’s coached to score four goals in a game, joining former Bowling Green star Chris Sullivan. As prestigious an accomplishment as that is, Stokes wasn’t getting too high on himself afterward.

“It was good, but I don’t claim all the success,” Stokes said. “My teammates worked hard to get me the ball there.

“I would never get the ball if they didn’t give it to me and they didn’t work hard, so it’s their good job, too.”

Konrad has been high on Stokes’ potential for a while. What does Ladas think is the secret to Stokes’ success?

“I think it’s just pure hustle and hard work and he’s also just an amazing player,” Ladas said. “There’s nothing else you can say.”

Nirtaut was similarly direct.

“He was great,” Nirtaut said. “He got shots off that were insane. He’s very hard to defend.”

Defending was an issue for the Redwings, who gave up way too many chances for Klosterman’s liking. Despite the lopsided margin, Connell played well and finished with eight saves in 74 minutes.

“We gave up five goals so there’s a lot to work on,” Klosterman said. “I was really disappointed with our defensive performance and a lot of that starts with giving up loose balls.”

The Redwings did show fight until the end. Drew Fieldman scored off an assist from Brendan Bergnach with 29 seconds remaining and eight minutes earlier, Nick Roe, a two-time Chicagoland Soccer All-State First Team defender, headed a corner kick off the crossbar, so Benet did generate chances.

But it wasn’t enough.

“Today I think we just didn’t communicate properly, and I think the games prior just made us tired,” Nirtaut said. “We didn’t play with full strength.

“I think I need to organize the backline quicker, not just the backline but also everyone around me.”

Despite the loss, Klosterman said the tournament was a good measuring stick for the Redwings, who finished with a 2-1 record.

“I thought we got a ton out of the game,” Klosterman said. “The nice thing is, even if you have a bad performance against a good team, they show you what you need to do better. That’s the benefit for us of playing a good tournament like Best of the West.”
Starting lineups

GK: Drew Connell
D: Nick Nirtaut
D: Danny Sterba
D: Drew Fieldman
D: Sam Trunnell
M: Jack Wesley
M: Nick Roe
M: Jack Kuelthau
F: Jason Riedl
F: Mateo Picha
F: Brendan Bergnach
Naperville North
GK: Jack Bouska
D: Connor Hanrahan
D: Ryne Gaccione
D: Colin McMahon
D: Andrew Hebron
M: Sam Hess
M: Hindo Allie
M: Noah Radeke
F: Josh Pederson
F: Jaxon Stokes
F: Anthony Flores

Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Jaxon Stokes, jr., F, Naperville North

Scoring summary

First half
Naperville North: Jaxon Stokes (PK), 12’
Naperville North: Noah Radeke (unassisted), 14’
Second half
Benet: Nick Nirtaut (Jack Wesley), 44’
Naperville North: Stokes (Hindo Allie), 50’
Naperville North: Stokes (Niko Ladas), 54’
Naperville North: Stokes (unassisted), 71’
Benet: Drew Fieldman (Brendan Bergnach), 80’