LEMONT -- Senior forward Cristian Morales is well acquainted with the history of the Brother Rice soccer program.
One of the top teams on Chicago’s South Side in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Crusaders went through a rough spell. Their last regional title came at the end of a four-year run of plaques in 2009. The last sectional conquest came in 2003, the year they finished fourth in the big-school division of the state tournament.
So Morales, and his similarly educated teammates, want to do everything possible to help lift Brother Rice back to the heights of the past. Tuesday night that meant keeping the team’s current postseason run alive.
In a Class AA sectional semifinal at Lemont High School's athletic complex, Morales did his part. He buried a header on a beautiful cross from senior midfielder Bruce Harris in the 61st minute to lead top-seeded Brother Rice to a 1-0 win over no. 4-seed Washington (Chicago).
“This win means a lot coming from the background of Brother Rice soccer,” Morales said. “We haven’t made it this far in the playoffs in a while, since 2003. Helping the team make it further into the playoffs, it feels good for me to help as much as I could and do as much as I can.”
Aiming for its first sectional championship in 20 years, Brother Rice (18-3-2) will face third-seeded Kankakee (16-8-1) on Oct. 28 for the title. The Kays joined the first Sweet 16 in school history when they defeated Marian 7-0 in the second semifinal.
Brother Rice coach Matt Prunckle loves what he’s seen out of his team’s ability to respond in tough moments all season.
The Crusaders led 2-0 in the regional final against Bremen, gave up two goals and then answered with a pair in an exciting 4-2 victory.
“We gave up two and kept our composure and came back,” Prunckle said. “We found that resiliency. Our St. Laurence loss, the Mount Carmel tie (1-1 Sept. 19), we had that resilience to come back. The boys are fighting hard.”
The Crusaders not lost since the rivalry 3-1 conference home loss to St. Laurence on Sept. 14.
Tuesday night the Brother Rice toughness was on full display against Washington. The Crusaders controlled possession for much of the game but were unable to bury a goal.
After a frustrating, scoreless first 60-plus minutes against the Patriots, Brother Rice got on the move. Harris, a four-year varsity player, gained possession just inside midfield in Washington territory.
He raced up the left side, then cut toward the goal before heading back outside to the endline under close pressure from the Washington defense.
Harris fired a cross into the box where Morales had snuck in behind Washington junior goalkeeper Dylan Castillo at the far post. Morales took the cross and calmly headed it into the net for the goal that set off a huge celebration for the Crusaders.
“I was drifting back post and dragging the goalie toward me,” Morales said. “I saw Bruce cut to the left and as soon as I saw him at the 18-yard box, I ran as fast as I could to the back post. It’s amazing. Nothing can beat that, a game-winning goal late in the game. We held down the fort and kept the win.”
Making his left-side run, Harris saw the opportunity and made the most of it. He said he just wanted to apply some pressure to the Patriots and force their hand.
“You just give it all you’ve got in that situation,” Harris said. “Maybe we’ll get a shot, a goal, something. You’re not going to capitalize on every single chance you get, so when I’m going down the line, I’m not thinking about too much. I saw the goalkeeper moved out, and I crossed it to Cristian.”
Harris watched three older brothers play soccer at Brother Rice.
Having grown up around the program and seeing one tough playoff loss after another, he loved getting the chance to play a major role in a dramatic win.
“It’s a huge feeling,” Harris said. “I’ve watched my brothers play, watched them in regional finals, in the first round. I’ve always wanted to make a name for Brother Rice and put it back where it belongs.”
Morales’ goal, his 17th of the season, shook up Washington. The Patriots did not go quietly over the final 18 minutes. Brother Rice sophomore goalie David Valencia made four of his six saves in the second half, including one athletic, full-out dive to his right to stop a Patriots shot in the box midway through the half.
In the game’s 72nd minute, Valencia made another impressive effort to knock down a shot. Washington recovered the deflection and with Valencia out of the goal and had a prime opportunity to draw even. But senior defender Jovani Zuniga was on the goal line to make a game-changing defensive save and blast the ball away.
Valencia was quick to credit his defensive backline, including junior Jimmy Gricus, senior Christian Potoczny, Zuniga and junior Luke Gordon, who got the start and delivered a key performance.
“That was our best effort as a defense,” Valencia said. “It was huge for me. I had to keep calm and keep my composure so I don’t get too crazy and make a big mistake.”
Valencia has been the team's top keeper for both of his seasons in a Crusaders kit.
Poised for a breakout season this fall, he was stalled when he broke his left pinky finger at a mid-August practice. He missed almost a full month. After two surgeries, he returned in late September.
“It was tough to sit it out. I was really sad,” Valencia said. “The guys did really good filling in for me. I’ve hit a good groove since coming back, so this win means a lot to me.”
Prunckle said Valencia’s return has settled everything down for the Crusaders.
“David gives us a presence,” Prunckle said. “He’s played in big games, played in national championships, played for the academy. He’s a presence back there in terms of managing games. You can’t replace a goalkeeper like that.”
Harris added that he’s seen a big improvement in Valencia from his freshman to sophomore season.
“David’s return has helped us a lot,” Harris said. “He was really good last year. He’s grown a couple inches, and he’s improved his feet. It helps us control the game a lot better and be more calm.”
Brother Rice had a 3-2-1 mark when it defeated Kankakee 4-0 Sept. 11 at the Body Armor tournament. This time the Crusaders carry a 14-game unbeaten streak (13-0-1).
Washington defeated the Crusaders 2-0 in a regional final two years ago. That Patriots squad ended up finishing third in the Class AA state tournament. Seven members of that squad were on hand Tuesday, including seniors Christian Aparicio, Cesar Martinez, Christian Ramirez, Raul Flores and Alexis Varela, and junior Juan Rodriguez.
“This group of seniors was awesome,” Washington coach Ricardo Suarez said. “We still had four starters from the third place team. Did I think we could go far? Yeah, of course. We had a lot of talent. It was a great group of guys, the whole team. It’s unfortunate it ends here, but it was a good run.”
Castillo made three saves in the loss. Washington finished the season 12-7-1.
Despite pushing the pace early in the second half after a quiet first half, the Patriots couldn’t tally a goal, thanks in great part to Valencia’s in-goal acrobatics and Zuniga's Johnny-on-the-spot save.
“We did not control the midfield,” Suarez said. “Brother Rice’s midfield is phenomenal. We did have a couple chances; you’re not going to get too many. We just couldn’t put it away.”
GK: Dylan Castillo
D: Raul Flores
D: Christian Ramirez
D: Jareth Perez
D: Juan Rodriguez
MF: Osmar Lopez
MF: Christian Aparicio
M: Sacramento Diaz
F: Edgar Sanchez
F: Cesar Martinez
F: Cesar Lopez
GK: David Valencia
D: Jimmy Gricus
D: Christian Potoczny
D: Jovani Zuniga
D: Luke Gordon
MF: Bruce Harris
MF: Salvador Perez
MF: Angelo Piech
MF: Julian Zambrano
F: Cristian Morales
F: Tyler Wojcik
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Cristian Morales, sr., F, Brother Rice
BR: Cristian Morales (Bruce Harris), 61’