CHICAGO – Nearly five weeks ago, St. Ignatius made all the right moves in its 4-0 Chicago Catholic League Blue Division whipping over St. Laurence.
The Wolfpack dominated the late September league game by scoring two goals in each half. Diego Garcia’s goal in the 10th minute, ignited the scoring.
After the game, St. Laurence coach Jaime Alonso, a former star player at Young and UIC, noted “soccer is a game of moments.”
On a warm but rainy Wednesday night in a Class AA De La Salle Sectional semifinal, the Vikings proceeded to have theirs.
St. Laurence, which held a man advantage for most of the game, led only by a goal lead late in the second half. Alonso couldn’t hide his nerves.
He got a brief break from the tension in the 67th minute, when he attended to an injured player. As he carried him off the field, one of the Vikings’ administrators joked, “That’s what you’ve been working out for coach.”
Wearing sweatpants and a full-sleeve shirt to go with an eye-catching yellow hat, Alonso was back to pacing the sidelines of the wet turf. He carved out a 15-yard path in the final 13-plus minutes of the second half.
With the clock dropping time too slowly for his liking, Alonso told his team “Six minutes to go boys, give everything you’ve got” during a brief stoppage in play. The coach continued to be a ball of nervous energy in the final minutes, continually taking off his hat and later locking his hands together on his lower back.
St. Laurence senior Diego Lugo provided a tonic to calm the nerves of the St. Laurence contingent – a late-game goal. The forward continued his torrid playoff run with a brace. His 79th-minute tally locked up a 4-2 win for the Vikings.
The victors earned advancement to the sectional finals for the second-consecutive season.
Clark Herrerra and Frankie Martinez also scored for the Vikings. Saul Garcia and Johnny Esparza both had assists to help rally the Vikings back from a 2-1 deficit.
“I’ve been through the moments before, but I get a lot more nervous now as a coach, because I can’t really affect the game like back in the day when I was on the pitch,” Alonso said, standing away from his team in the far northern corner of the mainly barren stadium well after the final whistle. “That’s a credit to St. Ignatius and how physical they are with their players and set piece plays they had. Any long throw or corner kick within 40 yards, you knew they would serve in the box and be dangerous. And they scored on two of them.”
The next opponent for the Vikings (12-7-2) also dredges up bad memories. They will meet Solorio for the third season in a row in the playoffs. The final kicks off at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Solorio, which won the Class AA 2017 state championship and finished in fourth place last season, is one of the hottest teams in the state. The Sun Warriors (18-3-1) enter with a four-match win streak and are 12-1-1 over their last 14 matches. They defeated the Vikings 4-3 in the sectional championship last season. In 2021, Solorio recorded a 2-1 triumph in a sectional semifinal.
St. Ignatius (8-11-2) entered the game with momentum buoyed by a win against Glenbrook South and tie against Glenbrook North, a Class 3A no. 1-seed.
St. Laurence scored on one of its first two shots on goal. Herrera delivered the opener off an assist from Garcia with 32:23 left in the first half.
Unfortunately for St. Ignatius, disaster struck in the 18th minute. Starting junior goalie Gabe Smith was whistled for a red card for taking down St. Laurence’s Lalo Perez just outside the box.
Sophomore backup keeper Jack Crilly came on for St. Ignatius and played well. He finished with four saves.
Wolfpack coach Matt Miller credited his opponent for a strong effort but noted the strong resolve of his players for scoring two first half goals to take the lead in the 36th minute despite their disadvantage.
“I’m incredibly proud of the group,” Miller said. “They rallied for the last 62 minutes with 10 men. They played as if there were 12 out there. I told them at halftime if they each give an extra 10 percent that’s an extra player. I told our sophomore keeper to enjoy the moment and keep it simple. It was a great experience for him for future seasons.”
Indeed, Miller and the Wolfpack deserved praise for their gutsy performance without a key starter for the majority of the match. Late in the first half, the Wolfpack seized the momentum on a Bryce Lynch’s header in the 31st minute to tie the game at 1-1. Teammate Nicholas Rezza added to the spirited comeback. He scored off an assist from Diego Garcia with 4:49 left until halftime to give St. Ignatius its only lead at 2-1.
“We felt we had what it took to come out of the game, or at least take it into extra time,” Miller said. “We had to change our play, be a little more direct. We just came up a little short. I just told the boys to be proud. This is probably my favorite team I’ve ever coached on the high school level. I’ve got some really good leaders and characters on the team combined with everything you could want on a team.”
St. Laurence made the deficit didn’t last long. Martinez connected with a goal off his right thigh from four yards in the 37th minute.
“The opportunity before that goal, we ran the same exact play on the corner,” Martinez said. “Diego was there, but he was short. I saw that nobody was really in the back post, so I took my opportunity. Johnny Esparza crossed it in, and I had an opportunity to tap it into the net.
“We started shooting and shooting and hoping to score after they lost their (starting) keeper. The last time we played them was a big impact on us. It was a tough conference loss. We had never lost that bad in the season. This was a get-back game. We wanted revenge. We scored quick, then they came back, and we had to score. Now we get Solorio. … We had a good game last year. … Hopefully, we don’t get the short end this time.”
Despite the exciting finish Wednesday, the Vikings didn’t have an emotional postgame scene.
After the game, St. Laurence’s players and coaches chose a subdued celebration. The Vikings, one by one, shook each other’s hands and displayed the confidence of securing a victory thanks to hard work and preparation rather than exploding in a mass party-like scene.
One of the main reasons behind the Vikings’ relaxed scene stems from some unfinished work – and another chance for redemption.
The Vikings returned five starters from last season’s team that hasn’t forgotten the memory of losing to Solorio in a close game, especially the seniors on the current team.
Alonso said he senses a different vibe from his team this postseason.
“We made too many mistakes last year,” Alonso said. “To win a sectional game, you have to limit your mistakes. We made some very big ones. I told the younger ones coming back to let this feeling drive you in the offseason and in your preparation. Hopefully, they can remember that feeling, so we won’t have it on Saturday
“I would say this team is very different from last year’s team. We play a different style of game. We play with three attackers instead of two post-up forwards and get our outside mids involved. Hopefully, we can get past that hump that last year’s team couldn’t. The key is to be physical and owning our moment and our individual moments. When the lights get bright, you have to bring your best stuff.
“They’ve had a total 180-degree turn this season. I’m happy to see it. I knew they were a special group. We didn’t have the regular-season we wanted, but no one remembers what you do in September. We’ve been spotty and shown bright spots throughout the season, but it hasn’t been consistent at all. I believe this is one of the few times of the year we’ve strung together three in a row, so hopefully we can make it four.”
The Vikings are one win away from advancing to a supersectional for the first time since they finished fourth in the 2019 Class AA state tournament.
Lugo showed off his clutch gene and veteran poise with his late goals. He now has 10 scores on the season.
He has saved his best soccer for the bright lights, scoring five goals in three playoff games to lead the Vikings. He secured the victory by drilling a slow roller in the far-right corner in the 79th minute, but his first goal was his biggest. He nailed a power-packed shot from 25 yards in the 67th minute to break a 2-2 deadlock.
Crilly got to the hard-hit shot, but it carried of his hands into the back of the net with 13:45 left in regulation.
“The first goal I saw the defender deflected it right in front of my feet, and I just took the volley and hit it as hard as I could,” Lugo said. “On the second goal, I just got past the defender and tried to put it in the best possible corner I could, and it went in. It feels great to come out here and keep winning and score for my team.”
The Vikings have come around since their shutout defeat to the Wolfpack on Sept. 19.
“Diego is our workhorse and engine and our first line of defense,” he said. “When he puts himself in good positions, he’s been burying them. It’s playoff Diego Lugo, so hopefully we can keep it going.”
Alonso said his players focused on being aggressive to take advantage of the shorthanded Wolfpack for the final 62 minutes.
“When (they) go a man down, it’s obviously to find the open man,” Alonso said. “I think St. Ignatius did a great job of adjusting and trying to skip lines instead of playing through the middle like they usually do. I thought in the moments where we found our center mids and found the speed up-top, we could turn our hips, and we were a lot better. But there was a 15 to 20-minute spurt where we couldn’t find any feet, and they were all over us.
“I think we did a little bit of a tactical adjustment in handling (St. Ignatius junior midfielder Patrick Rostan), and that’s when we started to take control of the game.”
Herrera started the scoring for the Vikings with his sixth goal of the season in the eighth minute via an assist from Garcia. Herrera said the Vikings made a point not to lose their focus in the second battle against the Wolfpack.
“I feel it was the lack of concentration the first time we played them,” he said. “After they scored the second goal, we were down on ourselves and gave up and didn’t play as a team. (Now) we knew it was playoffs and had to match up with their energy. We had to work harder. We knew it was going to be a lot easier with their keeper (out), but I feel it also made their defense play harder.
“We’ve been going and going and working hard in practice. … We will come back (Saturday) hungry, I know it. This team is all seniors. We didn’t lose much talent, so we should be fine against Solorio.”
Esparza, a senior, agreed with Herrera: “During the season, the early loss had us wanting to win this game more and have more passion. We used that motivation from losing 4-0 to keep going. We had our ups and downs and kept accountability. It was back and forth and very physical and were able to manage our emotions. We have to prepare even more for Solorio and play harder than today. Our next game is going to be a lot harder.”
St. Laurence senior forward Lalo Perez was one of the key players in the win. He sprinted free for the loose ball that led to the pivotal red card. The slender and athletic player left the game for several minutes after the collision before returning.
“I got in front of the defender, and the goalie committed and clipped my thigh,” Perez said. “This win feels amazing. We’ve had a lot of supporters. We have to get our redemption on (Solorio).”
Lugo said the Vikings are a completely different team in late October.
“In the regular-season, we didn’t want it as much,” Lugo said. “Now we realize our season can end just like that. We’re going all out. We stayed together and had good teamwork. Now we play Solorio. It was sad to lose to them last year. I’m excited to keep playing. We stayed motivated tonight and kept attacking. We have a great brotherhood and have been together since our freshman year. The chemistry is starting to finally show.”
St. Ignatius senior defender Thomas Schmiedeler, a first-year varsity player who was the JV captain last season, said it was a wild ride for him this season.
“It was a tough game,” he said. “It was great to play my last game with my brothers. I’m going to miss them a ton. We had a great season, and it was really fun. I’m happy about the season. I just remember making the team. I was super excited. All the games are so much higher intensity and more serious. I enjoyed it so much.
“It was tough not being on varsity (last year), but nice being a captain (last year) and being with some of my buddies on the field. It built character. It was more fun and easy-going than varsity, but it was tough. But it made this year so much more special.
“I think losing our keeper made us want it that much more and would have made it more special if we won. The odds were against us, but we came back and did what we could. We played well and left it all on the field. It was a great season and super fun.”
St. Ignatius senior forward Jack Ozinga said the team formed a tight bond, which showed in Wednesday’s game.
“We have morning practices every day. I wake up for these guys, because they are my best friends,” Ozinga said. “That was insane and a wild game. These guys are so passionate and love the sport and game. We practiced every day and loved each other as a family.”
GK: Gabe Smith
D: William Hebbelin
D: Caden Walker
D: Bryce Lynch
D: Carter Harris
MF: Nathan Schneider
MF: Roman Marsh
MF: Enzo Santillan
MF: Patrick Rostan
F: Diego Garcia
F: Nicholas Rezza
GK: Vin Diesi
D: Lorenz Garcia
D: Edgar Perez
D: Matthew Suchecki
D: Frankie Martinez
MF: Clark Herrera
MF: Tristan Figueroa
MF: Johnny Esparza
MF: Saul Garcia
F: Lalo Perez
F: Diego Lugo
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Diego Lugo, sr., F, St. Laurence.
St. Laurence: Herrera (Garcia), 8’
St. Ignatius: Lynch (Rostan), 31’
St. Ignatius: Rezza (Garcia), 36’
St. Laurence: Martinez (Esparza), 37’
St. Laurence: Lugo (unassisted), 67’
St. Laurence: Lugo (unassisted), 79’