LISLE – One playing card after another, the deck began to stack up against Notre Dame prior to its East Suburban Catholic Conference match Wednesday at Benet.
Right from the get-go, the Dons team bus had to struggle through traffic from Niles to Lisle to try to make it on time for a 4:30 p.m. start.
They arrived late, took a brief warmup, and headed right to the pitch for the opening kickoff.
Then Notre Dame watched almost helplessly as Benet played just about as flawless a first half of soccer as anyone could ask for in the league-opener between defending conference tri-champions.
The Redwings dominated but came away with a 1-0 lead at intermission. It could have been much worse for the visitors at that point.
“We had a lot of things against us to start,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Smith. “Long bus ride, short warmup, and Benet came out with more energy to start the game.
“They scored one goal but could have had two or three.”
Consider that in the first half Benet possessed the ball for the great majority of the time and spent most of the half in Notre Dame territory.
The Redwings strung together crisp passes, created tons of space, took an almost unbelievable nine corner kicks in the first 22 minutes alone and produced four quality shots on goal.
The only one that connected came from senior forward Matt Benka in the 26th minute. The five-yard shot came off an assist from Jason Riedl.
“When you play that well,” bemoaned Redwings coach Matt Klosterman, “you have to put some goals away. If you leave a good team like Notre Dame hanging around, they’re always going to bounce back.
“Notre Dame bounced back, and I give them a lot of credit for it.”
The Dons came out like a different team in the second half. They controlled the proceedings early on, took the lead and then saw Benet tie it up late.
But Notre Dame prevailed with a goal in the second overtime to secure a 3-2 victory.
“At halftime we really came together,” said Smith. “We started playing our brand of soccer, and we played with more heart and energy. I told our guys (after the match) that they played one of the best halves of soccer I’ve ever seen.
“You could feel the energy on the bench, and the guys felt it on the field.”
Notre Dame had two great opportunities to tie the match in the first two minutes of the second half. A header by junior midfielder Joey Sorce just missed, and then another chance in the air from Dons senior forward Ryan Shanahan was saved by Benet keeper Drew Connell.
The visitors finally broke through in the 54th minute. Junior Ante Basan chipped in the box to Shanahan, who found the back of the net from seven yards away to make it 1-1.
Less than 90 seconds later, Notre Dame took the lead.
This time it was Shanahan who returned the favor to his teammate. The senior sent a pass past traffic to Basan, who curled a perfect kick around the Redwings keeper at point-blank range for the score.
“First we got one, then we got two,” said Smith. “I’m just so proud of my guys for how hard we played.
“Then we got unlucky on a couple of calls, but we were able to grind it out. This is a special group of guys, and I give them credit.”
Benet found new life in the last quarter of the match. Benka was knocked down in the box with just 15:23 remaining, and the Redwings were awarded a penalty kick.
Benet senior and two-time Chicagoland Soccer All-Stater Nick Roe took the boot and knocked it in to tie the game at 2-2.
The kick just eluded Dons keeper Cian Haugh, who got a hand on the ball but couldn’t deflect it away.
Benet had a great chance to win the game before overtime kicked in. Notre Dame played a man short from the 67th minute on after a player was sent off due to a pair of yellow cards.
Just before the regulation horn sounded, Roe dribbled past a couple of defenders and delivered the ball to midfielder Ruslan Holubec.
Holubec put a shot on goal, but Notre Dame keeper Haugh was up to the challenge.
That sent the proceedings to two five-minute overtimes. The players, weary as they were from 80 minutes of physical play, had to find a way to pick up the energy for at least 10 more minutes.
“I had to come out for a while in the second half I was so tired,” said Shanahan, who is one of the Dons captains. “In the second overtime, I started cramping up so I thought I couldn’t give it any more. Then I saw the ball coming my way.”
With less than 4 minutes left, Angel Panora-Garcia sent a long ball down the middle of the field toward a streaking Shanahan, who was able to corral it in front of a Benet backliner.
The captain turned and got past the defender, and fired a hard shot from about 15 yards away that crossed the goal line for the game-winner.
“I thought the defender was going to be able to clear,” said Shanahan, “but he kind of hesitated, and I saw my chance.
“The goalie came out to challenge, and I just was able to slide it past him.”
Notre Dame (5-0-0, 1-0-0) clamped down on defense in the final moments. Forward Sebastian Dzierzanowski cleared away a final Benet attack to secure the victory.
“Honestly, this is a great team win,” said Shanahan. “We got down early, but we were able to bounce back, which was amazing, and then we were able to pull it out.
“At halftime, our coach (Smith) got us hyped up. We came out a little bit flat and needed to wake up. After that we were fired up and ready to go. I don’t want to foreshadow anything, but they (Benet) are one of our toughest conference rivals so this is big.”
Riedl, who played a strong game for Benet, said that the evenly played contest came down to “who wanted it more.
“We knew coming in it was going to be a tough match. We definitely could have won, but they (Notre Dame) played harder.
“We just kind of lost effort.”
Riedl, a senior, is extremely happy that he’ll have a chance to contribute to what the perennially successful Redwings hope can be another stellar season.
He suffered a pre-season injury, and for a time it looked like he’d be on the shelf for quite a while.
“At the end of training camp,” said Riedl, “I thought I had fractured my ankle. We went to see some doctors, got some X-rays, and they determined it was just a contusion. That was great news because last year, I probably missed three-fourths of the season due to a knee injury.
“We’re working well so far as a team this year. I think we just have to put more effort in on the pitch. We know what we need to work on; we just have to accomplish it.”
Basan of the Dons also suffered an injury in the 2022 campaign, and he missed last year’s tilt against Benet.
“Good to be back,” said Basan. “They beat us last year, so it’s nice to get a win on their home field."
The junior added that he was sure that his teammate Shanahan would be the one to come through for the team in the final minutes.
“I knew he had it in him,” he said. “Ryan is just a great player.”
Prior to the game, Benet (1-3-1, 0-1-0) assistant coach Brian Penn talked about the significance of the game.
“For us to play maybe the strongest team in the conference right away is maybe good for us,” said Penn. “We are playing at a high level right now> We’re expecting Notre Dame to be very physical, and we’re used to playing physical teams.
“A game of this type puts a lot on the conference title early on. The first game of the year is just as important as the last one.”
GK: Cian Haugh
D: Bryan Vazquez
D: Max Stalenczyk
D: Ante Basan
M: Joey Sorce
M: Angel Panora-Garcia
M: Jack McNamara
M: Ian Martinez
F: Adrian Pasic
F: Ryan Shanahan
F: Sebastian Dzierzanowski
GK: Drew Connell
D: Danny Sterba
D: Sam Trunnell
D: Nick Nirtaut
D: Drew Fieldman
M: Jack Kuelthau
M: Alex Farsals
M: Nick Roe
F: Matt Benka
F: Jason Riedl
F: Mateo Picha
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Ryan Shanahan, Sr, F, Notre Dame
Benet: Benka (Riedl), 26’
ND: Shanahan (Basan), 54’
ND: Basan (Shanahan), 56’
Benet: Roe (penalty kick), 66'
ND: Shanahan (Panora-Garcia), 86’