GRAYSLAKE – Twenty-six months ago, Grayslake Central hosted Crystal Lake South in an epic Class AA sectional championship game.
Played on a cold and windy night, the Rams’ took a 2-0 decision. Since that season, the Rams have been on a fantastic run.
Grayslake Central’s back-to-back trips to the state tournament finals have produced fourth place and third place finishes that were led by iconic players like Danik Marynevych and Alan Alonso.
The 2023 edition of Rams represents a fresh start, filled with talented and upcoming players to go with standout goalie Uriel Garcia-Perez and midfielder Mitchell Fein.
On Thursday night, the Gators and Rams hooked up for another game under the lights in Grayslake. This time the conditions – warm with a slight breeze – were more favorable for the spectators, players and coaches.
But the final result was identical. The Rams scored two first half goals off set pieces for a 2-0 victory over the Gators in the nonconference match.
Grayslake Central was efficient with its chances early in the game. Sophomore midfielder Ivan Sereno scored a goal off a long free kick in the 25th minute. Less than four minutes later, senior midfielder Mitchell Fein knocked a penalty kick inside the near post. Senior goalie Uriel Garcia-Perez claimed the clean-sheet with six saves which didn’t take into account near-misses from the Gators that sailed over and outside the goal.
Grayslake Central coach Keith Andersson said he saw several outstanding performances in the win. The Rams (4-2-0) stretched their winning streak to four games following tough defeats to Class 3A sides New Trier and Libertyville to open the season. He noted the play of Garcia-Perez, Anderson Chevrier, Fein, Sereno and Prince Trawick.
“Uriel in goal was a big one. Anderson's play was outstanding, and Prince up-top was a game-changer,” Andersson said. “Ivan's free kick was pretty amazing, and Mitchell has been playing like a true leader. Overall, the entire team played very well. Crystal Lake South is well-coached, and they came ready to play.”
Grayslake Central junior defender/midfielder Chevrier, who is also a captain in his third year on the varsity, said the Rams are a completely different team than the past two state-bound units.
“They were good teams and had a lot of attackers up-front,” Chevrier said. “We really had to come together as a team in the back, just to hold Crystal Lake South. On offense, we capitalized on our opportunities, and we put away the chances we needed to put away.
“This season we started off playing some really hard opponents. We have our groove together, and I truly think this team is something special. We lost a lot of people from last year, but we’re truly a very good team. It’s been a fun time out here.”
For Crystal Lake South, the Grayslake Central stadium represents a mixed bag of memories. The Gators defeated Notre Dame 2-0 in the 2019 Grayslake Central Supersectional on their way to a second place state finish.
In 2018, Crystal Lake South beat Grayslake Central in the regional opener to start its run to the state championship.
Crystal Lake South coach Brian Allen said he enjoys playing on the road at Grayslake Central. The Gators (4-2-1, 1-0-0 Fox Valley Conference) were coming off an emotional and spirited 2-0 league win over Dundee-Crown on Tuesday but couldn’t sustain their momentum against the Rams. Senior goalie Chris Slawek finished with three saves.
“This is a good one, because Grayslake (Central) has hosted a lot of stuff,” Allen said. “We like playing here and also under the lights. It simulates a lot of the playoff atmosphere, and the physicality of the game was good. We have mixed emotions coming back here.
“We beefed up our schedule for a reason. We got off to a great start in conference against an undefeated (Dundee-Crown) on Tuesday. I don’t think we had any tired legs today. I thought it was a great soccer game. We had our moments and had a lot of great looks.
“In the run of play, we limited a very dangerous team to some difficult looks. We have to clean up some things, especially when you give up two set pieces. We will learn and grow again. We play another very good Lake County team in Lake Zurich on Saturday.
“We loaded our schedule to be ready for conference and to be ready for the postseason. We know playing all of these teams will make us ready and battle-tested for October. We will look at the film and get better.”
Allen said the shutout defeat to the Rams was frustrating, partly because his team made Garcia-Perez work throughout the fast-played match.
Nolan Getzinger blasted a free kick wide left in the 50th minute, Nick Prus smacked a 40-yard shot to the right and Nico Velasco’s header in the box clanged off the crossbar with 16:55 left. With 10:23 remaining, Ali Ahmed nearly scored from 11 yards after attempting a shot off a big bounce. The Gators’ final scoring chance came with 75 ticks remaining when Ahmed drilled a shot wide left.
In the first half, Ahmed received a great pass from Blake Marunde and ripped a shot from 19 yards that Garcia-Perez saved with a dive to his right.
“You have to score to win games in soccer,” Allen said. “I’m pleased with how we created chances. I can’t complain about that. But if you don’t put the ball in the back of the net, you are making it more difficult. When you have sitters inside the six against a quality goalkeeper, like Uriel is, you have to score those, because he’s going to make the saves he’s supposed to make and a couple of game-changing ones.
“We let them off the hook. We put him in bad spots, but couldn’t finish or couldn’t get them on frame for little tap-ins. That’s disappointing. The free kick they made was a great strike.
“I was proud of our resolve in terms of how we fought and battled back and created a lot of chances, but if you don’t get the goal to get back in the game, you will make it a lot tougher.
“I think the backline was really good. I thought Pierce (Johnson) was solid, though he was not at 100 percent today. He gutted it out and battled through it. Nick Prus was fantastic in the middle, doing a lot of the dirty work. We just have to be more consistent. We had a lot of good spurts that gave us our chances, but when we weren’t consistent in our moments, that’s when we got into trouble.”
Sereno shocked the large crowd – and perhaps a few players on the Gators – with his bullet-like free kick from more than 30-plus yards that nestled inside the near post for a 1-0 lead. It was the sophomore’s second goal of the season.
“We practice from that exact spot, maybe a couple of yards forward,” Sereno said. “In our last game, I had the same exact shot and it went over, so today I knew I had to make it. We’re playing strong in the back and getting goals. We’ve been progressing and day by day we are getting better at finishing.”
Fein, a left-foot dominant player and a four-year varsity player, scored the second goal of the game by shooting to the near post for a 2-0 lead on a penalty kick. It was his fifth goal of the year.
“Usually when I go take a penalty, I can’t hear the crowd rumbling because I’m focused on the ball,” Fein said.
Fein also focuses on joshing Sereno.
“I keep making fun with Ivan, because he’s assisted on four of my five goals,” Fein said. “I’m like, I can’t score without him. He’s so creative with the ball.”
The 6-foot Fein, who’s the second tallest player on the team, said he’s assuming a new role as a senior leader and veteran presence on the field. So, he’s grown in more ways than one over the course of his high school career.
“It feels weird being a senior, coming in as a freshman and seeing all of these guys that seem eight-feet tall,” Fein said. “It feels good (being a veteran). I just try and help the team win, and lead the boys. Some of them are trying to get into it more, and you have to try and lift them up more.”
Trawick was one of the unlucky players for Grayslake Central on Thursday night. He was hunting for a goal throughout the game, especially in the second half. He had four shot attempts after intermission and all missed the mark by a few yards.
“I should’ve scored one,” Trawick said. “I know I will keep getting chances. Next time I will make sure to capitalize on them.”
The junior, who is capable of playing several positions, noted the Rams are starting to believe in themselves.
“At first, I knew we lost a lot of players from last year, but now I’m starting to believe we can make it to state again this year,” Trawick said. “We have more confidence, especially after winning our first game. We know what we can do after winning a lot the last two years.”
Andersson said the new-look Rams are starting to hit their stride following a grueling opening week. Wins over Loyola, Buffalo Grove, Warren and now Crystal Lake South give the Rams some confidence heading into another match with a Class 3A team Saturday in Mundelein.
“In our first game against New Trier, we were not mentally ready,” Andersson said. “The younger boys were not used to the speed of play. I tell the boys these are preseason games, so we can get better and figure out what our weaknesses are and improve on them.
“They have been improving each game. They all come from different clubs, so it takes some time for them to get used to each other's playing styles. Practice and film are helping, plus they are learning every day. We are excited to see the progress they are making.
“(Assistant) coach (Brad) Nieder and I said before the season that we thought this was the fastest team we have ever had. I never want to take away from teams of the past. They are the reason we are where we are, so it’s hard to compare this year's team to them.”
Crystal Lake South walked away from the match unhappy, but also noted the game was significantly closer than the final outcome.
“It’s a nonconference game, so we’re not too worried about this,” Prus said. “We created a lot of chances, but at the end of day we have to finish them. We played a good amount of soccer in the last 30 minutes. When you are in the penalty box, you have to score.
“We played very well in the run of play. If we held them throughout play and finished our chances, I think we could easily have won this game. We’ve played some hard games, and we can grow from this and make it far by the end of the season.”
Marunde, a senior defender for the Gators, said the backline held firm despite Grayslake Central’s steady flow of shots.
“(Grayslake Central) is a team from our sectional, so it’s important we play well against teams we’re going to see later on in the season if we make it far,” Marunde said. “We played good in the run of play. We just got unlucky. We showed we can compete if we keep playing hard and competing.
“We created the chances, but sometimes they don’t go in. We have to work on that in practice and move on.”
Crystal Lake South
GK: Chris Slawek
D: Diego Paguada
D: Blake Marunde
D: Pierce Johnson
D: Garrett Hess
MF: Nick Prus
MF: Nolan Getzinger
MF: Nico Velasco
MF: Mason Ross
F: Brendan Lewis
F: Ali Ahmed
GK: Uriel Garcia-Perez
D: Jack Lapidus
D: Jake Clement
D: Cory Hanson
D: Uriel Alonso
MF: Jaziel Alonso
MF: Ivan Sereno
MF: Mitchell Fein
MF: Anderson Chevrier
F: Nick Molochnikov
F: Prince Trawick
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Ivan Sereno, so., MF, Grayslake Central
Grayslake Central: Sereno (free kick) 25’
Grayslake Central: Fein (penalty kick), 29’
No goals scored