CAROL STREAM – St. Charles East had a deja vu moment three minutes into the Class 3A Glenbard North Regional championship match Friday night at Burt Weber Field. It wasn't a good one.
Eleventh-seeded Conant took an early lead in the contest and reminded the Fighting Saints of 2022, when the then second-seeded Fighting Saints dropped a regional match by one goal to 10th-seeded Glenbard East.
The Fighting Saints made sure last year’s disappointment did not come back to haunt them. St. Charles East responded with two first half goals to take the regional crown 2-1 and advance to meet host and 10th-seeded West Chicago in the sectional semifinal round at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Conant’s Krystian Niziolek scored his 17th goal of the season to give the Cougars an early boost. The junior dribbled up the left sideline and finished from 20 yards.
St. Charles East didn’t waste much time with an answer. It came via Aiden Maloney’s blast from just inside the left corner of the penalty box in the seventh minute.
“I was starting on left wing, and I saw some space there. I saw my teammate (Marc Walker) get the ball, so I made the run, and he played it perfectly,” Maloney said of his 10th goal of the season. “I took a touch and then just slid it past the keeper.”
A Jake Walker midfield free kick in the 25th minute ended with the Fighting Saints’ game-winning goal. Standing just outside the left post, Garrett Melton corralled the 46-yard boot and headed it into the net.
“I saw it open on the back post, and I made eye contact with Jake, the center back,” Melton said “He just played it back post to me. Nobody else ran in so I was in.”
The junior said his fourth goal of the campaign was “the best by far.”
St. Charles East dominated in the second half but was unable to secure an insurance goal.
The Fighting Saints had two good chances in the opening minutes of the period: Maloney’s blast from 20 yards went wide; Logan Lewarchick’s close-in boot went over the net.
“We weren’t lucky enough to get that third goal and get some breathing room, but we found a way to win,” St. Charles East coach Vince DiNuzzo said. “We executed, and we created some chances. We are going to have to be a little bit better in the final part of field.”
Conant’s early goal did not rattle St. Charles East (17-7-0).
“There’s concern that they scored in the first five minutes. It’s something that we prepared for,” DiNuzzo said. “We knew who Krystian is. We had a plan. We didn’t execute the plan.
“We regrouped after that, gained a little bit of confidence and settled into our game.”
Conant (10-11-2), which advanced to the regional final after upending their fifth-seeded host Glenbard North 1-0 on Oct. 18, started the match in high gear. Niziolek’s score came on his second shot on goal.
“We started on the right foot. We came out with that intensity. Then as the game wore on it, we lost it a little bit,” said Conant assistant coach Mark Davies, who filled in for head coach Jason Franco. “But you can’t take any credit away from (St. Charles East), because they kind of settled in and turned it into a great soccer game.”
St. Charles East refocused on Niziolek.
“Steering the ball away from number seven (Niziolek) and making someone else make a play was the key to the match. Challenging his first touch, he’s a difference-maker,” DiNuzzo said. “They have other players that are very good. But he can change the game, and he did today.”
The Fighting Saints backline headed and tackled away balls meant for the junior. Defenders Jake Walker and Griffin Counts were tasked with containing Niziolek.
“We moved Jake from the left center back to right center back to provide more cover insurance,” DiNuzzo said.
Walker quickly realized he would have his hands full.
“At the start of the game, the idea was to have a defender man-mark him. After the goal we realized that this kid’s more of a handful than we expected,” said Walker. “What ended up happening was instead of just man-marking, I would shift to the side of him. If he played in the center, I would mark him as well. The result was great. I mean they didn’t have many chances the rest of the of the game. They didn’t really do much.”
Counts’ man-marking proved successful.
“(Niziolek) was able to find the ball,” Davies said. "With number four (Counts) on him the whole game, he just couldn’t really generate good scoring chances. We had a few, but they were doing a good job on him.”
Niziolek had opportunities for an equalizer on set pieces. Late in the first half, a left-side corner kick was caught by Fighting Saints goalkeeper Jordan Rolon (five saves). Two second half free kicks, a 50-yarder and a 25-yarder, were cleared by St. Charles East defenders.
Walker thought the early Conant goal did not demoralize his team.
“It was a fantastic bounce-back going after going down one-nil in the regional final last year,” the senior said. “Everyone just had memories of that. Once we went down one-nil, the guys said 'We got this. We aren’t going down.'”
For his sharp effort on defense, Walker was named the Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match.
“He cleans up so much, and he was the catalyst on defense,” his coach said. “They play so direct, so he had to deal with a lot. His head has to be pounding. He probably had 20 headers out of the air. Jake also did a good job of organizing us.”
West Chicago (10-7-2) pulled a 2-1 surprise on second-seed St. Charles North (11-7-1) Friday night to win the Addison Trail Regional.
“It will be another tough test for us. Not only are they technically sound, but they are hosting,” DiNuzzo said of West Chicago. “They have talented players who have bought into coach (Jose) Villa’s principles. The boys will leave it all out on the field.”
GK: Juan Diego Becerril
D: Ukyo Takahashi
D: Braden Hauser
D: Danny Flores
D: Oliver Wozny
MF: Ibuki Takahashi
MF: Gabe Dobeincu
MF: Sai Patel
F: Krystian Niziolek
F: Peter Nikolov
F: Bogdan Lazarov
St. Charles East
GK: Jordan Rolon
D: Brandon Garland
D: Griffin Counts
D: Jake Walker
D: Michael Grezenko
MF Garrett Melton
MF: Logan Lewarchick
MF: Aiden Maloney
F: Marc Walker
F: Omar Ontiveros
F: Ryan Groselak
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Jake Walker, sr. D, St. Charles East
Conant: Niziolek 3’
SCE: Maloney (Marc Walker) 7’
SCE: Melton (Jake Walker) 25’