HOFFMAN ESTATES — The moment of truth is blinding. It provides no comfort or sanctuary.
The biggest games provide a wholly different platform, for good and bad. Some players rise to the occasion.
Every weakness tends to get exposed.
North Shore Country Day was poised, ready and alert.
“Most of the games where we score early, we know that we have the chance to come out very strong,” midfielder Henry Gallun said. “It is something we have in our game plan.”
In the glare and intensity of the Class A state championship match, the Raiders always came up with the right answers.
Forward Leif Steele created two gorgeous set piece goals for the Raiders’ historic 2-0 victory Saturday over University (Normal) in the Class A state championship game at Hoffman Estates High School.
North Shore Country Day (17-5-1) won the first state soccer championship in school history.
The Raiders produced the perfect bookend, scoring a goal in the fifth minute of each half.
“We have been very fortunate to have some very good scouting reports,” Steele said. “We have been able to use that knowledge and our skill to formulate really good game plans.
“We knew we had to pounce on them really quickly and make a statement.”
Senior forward Daniel Becker fired the first warning shot, a rocket ball in the second minute that sliced off a Pioneers’ defender.
North Shore Country Day generated three corner kicks in the first four minutes.
In the fifth minute, Steele delivered.
At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, he has elite size and physical ability to take over games. On his powerful throw-in from the left edge, he launched a ball into the box that Gallun got a flick on.
It deflected off a Pioneers’ defender for the stunning early lead.
Trying to win its second state championship since 2016, the Pioneers (21-6-2) were flummoxed and caught off-guard.
“Obviously a lot of the times we are the ones who are domineering the game, and they came out with a lot of energy,” midfielder Cooper Stengel said. “They got a lot of opportunities, and I guess we should have been ready for that.”
With skilled, gifted playmaking talents like Steele, Becker and Gallun, the Raiders elevated their game and actions to the significance of the moment.
The differences proved telling. The Raiders were quicker, more fluid and dynamic in getting into their attack and shaping the flow of the game.
“My initial thoughts, just thinking back on it, I thought they were the more physical team right from the beginning,” University (Normal) coach Jeremy Stanton said.
“I thought they competed a little harder than us right from the beginning. They scored in the fifth minute, and from that point we were on our heels the rest of the game.”
Every team creates their own model of efficiency, or mode of operation.
The Raiders created a highly successful formula of early action, playing with the lead and exerting their will over the opposition.
After conceding a goal late in the first half in a 9-1 regional semifinal victory over Beacon on Oct. 11, the Raiders played nearly 600 minutes without permitting a goal and posted six consecutive shutouts.
Keeper Aram Dombalgian set the tone. His athleticism, vocal leadership, and rallying cries created a developing momentum and power the team fed off.
He finished with five saves and a good number of charges off his line for the shutout.
The backline was constructed virtually out of whole cloth. Center back Luke Hansen was a converted forward. Smith Flickinger is the other center back.
They have size and excellent range, the 6-foot-1 Hansen and the 5-for-11 Flickinger helping power the transition attack.
Thatcher Smith played the right outside back and Kyle Banner is the left outside back. Their quickness and speed meshed perfectly with the size and power of the two center backs.
“There was just a lot of communication, and I did my best to tell these guys what they should do,” Dombalgian said.
“It began with our trip. Our backline wasn’t the greatest, to be honest, but coach (Kyle) Jones went into the lab, and he tweaked some things during our trip.”
On the eve of the season, Jones took the team to his hometown in Northampton, near Birmingham, England.
“It set the tone for the rest of the season,” Jones said. “We had some quality days together, and I think the communicating started there.
“We were hanging out and doing some incredible things. We saw a couple of Premier League games. We saw the sights. We got them connected and went from strength to strength.”
The Raiders lamented some other missed chances to expand their lead in the first half.
“We stayed hungry,” Becker said. “I had some chances that I missed. We stayed after it. I know I can only speak for myself, but I was hungry to go out there and make a difference. It was the same for everybody we pulled out there.”
The playing styles of the attacking talents beautifully intertwined together: the force and physical play of Steele dovetailing with the speed and precision of Becker, and the shot-making of Gallun and forward Kai Zavala.
Midfielder Razaan Ghazi was instrumental as a connective thread, helping maintain possession and pushing the ball out wide in space.
By dominating possession and quality of chances, the Raiders prevented University (Normal) from gathering any forward momentum.
In the 14th minute, off movement, midfielder Brady Plattner blasted a shot from about 26 yards that skipped over the top of the bar.
Their attack was too often isolated and lacking consistency of purpose or direction. University (Normal) never truly threatened, not even gaining its first corner kick chance until the 54th minute.
The Pioneers middle of Stengel, J.T. Kelly and Thanapat Missakasavke was continuously bottled up, throttled at the point of attack.
North Shore Country Day achieved the perfect game plan and made their opponent amorphous and seemingly disconnected.
“We never got it going,” Stanton said. “We never got the ball on the ground and played the way we were all season-long.
“Part of that was us, part of that was the other team. They did a great job of defending us, and how they played, and their physicality, they deserved to win this game.”
Midfielder Owen Pacetti mildly threatened a few times with deep free kicks.
Every time University (Normal) knocked at the gate, Dombalgian answered the challenge.
The fast and explosive Pioneers’ attack that created dizzying pressure against Columbia in the semifinal game never truly materialized.
All that remained was North Shore Country Day creating the necessary separation.
Once again, Steele was the architect, working beautifully in concert with Becker.
North Shore Country Day created a virtually identical second half start as the opening of the game, creating pressure that pushed the Pioneers to the brink.
In the 45th minute, the Raiders effectively put the game away.
After the first Becker corner kick was knocked out of bounds by keeper Noah Grieshaber, a second ensued that Becker played short to Steele.
He broke free down the left end line and slotted a ball into the middle that Hansen got his left back foot on for a gorgeous score.
“I’ve played forward, so I know about the situation and that experience around the goal,” Hansen said.
“My first thought was I have to get open for a shot, or something. I saw Leif had like three people on him. As much as he is used to that, I wanted to give him an option.”
The two-goal lead felt as wide as a canyon. University (Normal) created some marginally more dangerous opportunities, like a header by Stengel off a Pacetti corner.
No matter the complications or the specific challenges, like defender Francis Avogo slipping inside the box and firing a ball from about 14 yards in the 72nd minute, the Raiders had a solution, a response.
“We didn’t come into the season saying we wanted to win a state championship,” Jones said.
“Our motto was always the next game. We always wanted to win the next game. After the first couple of state games, we just said let’s keep the season rolling. I think our guys just latched onto that.”
In an extraordinarily candid moment, Jones became deeply emotional talking about his father, who called him four years earlier in 2019 when the Raiders made their first state finals appearance.
“He called me from England, and he said he was going to come to the game. I told him it was too stressful, and he could come to the next one.
“He passed away two months later, and I have just been determined to get back.”
Leif Steele earned the Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match honor for his brilliant play.
His older sister Zinzi played on the girls’ teams that reached consecutive state championship games in 2018 and 2019.
A school with just over 200 students, the Raiders’ state soccer championship is now part of the school lore, joining two state championships in both boys’ golf and girls’ tennis.
“It was very real, but from my experience we always had to remember to take it one day at a time,” Steele said.
“Every day at practice, every day at a game, I knew this was a strong team, and we were getting stronger. I think that was the leading factor in our success, knowing that we are a team committed to playing every game with each other as if it was our last.”
GK: Noah Grieshaber
D: Francis Avogo
D: Bryce Nicolas-Penn
D: Noah Molitor
D: Chad Boester
MF: Cooper Stengel
MF: J.T. Kelly
MF: Thanapat Missakasavake
MF: Owen Pacetti
F: Brady Plattner
F: Vinnie Moreland
North Shore Country Day
GK: Aram Dombalgian
D: Kyle Banner
D: Smith Flickinger
D: Luke Hansen
D: Thatcher Smith
MF: Henry Gallun
MF: Razaan Ghazi
MF: Ricardo Gonzalez
F: Daniel Becker
F: Leif Steele
F: Kai Zavala
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Leif Steele, sr., F, North Shore Country Day
NSCD: Henry Gallun (Leif Steele), fifth minute
NSCD: Luke Hansen (Steele), 45th minute