Gators claim second 2A state title
By Mike Garofola
HOFFMAN ESTATES -- Crystal Lake South's recent postseason exploits have been nothing short of sensational. They lifted the 2018 Class AA trophy, then followed a year later with a second place finish. Their collection of hardware includes six-consecutive regional titles, three supersectionals, three sectionals and a handful of league crowns in the past six seasons.
However, as impressive as the Gators resume reads, their 2-1 victory over favored Notre Dame (Peoria) might be their best accomplishment of all.
Some finals are remembered for dramatic comebacks, some recall two superb sides pitted against one another, while others are looked back on as entertaining games of soccer decided by one incredible moment, as this one surely will.
Nick Prus' 30-yard wonder goal after the intermission decided the Class AA state championship Saturday afternoon at Garber Stadium at host Hoffman Estates High School.
The Gators (22-4-1) had plenty of staying power and resilience during a furious and frantic attempt by the Irish to find the equalizer during a final 10-minutes push. The Irish were looking to claim a second-consecutive state title and fifth in program history.
"Wow!, best describes the feeling we all have right now," said an elated yet mentally and physically exhausted Gators manager Brian Allen, who fell to his knees when the shrill whistle of referee Kevin Parker ended the 80-minute thriller.
"I really do not know where to start, except to say just how proud I am of all the guys for the incredible effort they gave out there tonight," continued Allen.
"I really believe our nonconference schedule helped prepare us for this weekend and Notre Dame (Peoria).
"We lost to conference champs Palatine (Mid-Suburban) and Lake Zurich (North Suburban), our Fox Valley Conference co-champ Huntley and a great AA team in Grayslake Central (a top sectional seed and Final Four team the past two seasons). Every time I looked out there today, and we were maybe under pressure or Notre Dame (Peoria) was coming at us hard, the guys seemed unfazed and their body language never changed.”
"Our mindset has always been focused on playing one game at a time, playing within ourselves and for each other. Today it all paid off," said the Gators all-state senior Nolan Getzinger, one of many heroes on the day for the new state champs.
"Effort, hard work, being resilient and playing our brand of soccer was the difference out there against a really good team," added Nico Velasco.
Fresh off his game-winner Friday in the 1-0 semifinal victory over Rochester, Velasco was at it again on this sunny Saturday afternoon.
The senior took advantage of some miscommunication along the backline of the Irish (21-5-1) to stun the reigning state champs in the 26th minute.
"It wasn't the start we were looking for," said Irish manager Mike Bare, who left Hoffman Estates with the 15th state trophy in program history and ninth in his 17 years in charge.
"We were not clean enough in that exchange in our own end, and they made us pay for that mistake. It was not a very good first half of soccer (for us).
"We got sucked into playing the way Crystal Lake South wanted us to. They won so many 50-50 balls, especially in the air. We were just hoping to get to the half chasing just one goal and make some adjustments.”
The sequence that led to goal no. 9 on the year for Velasco came just moments after Irish keeper Theodore Dimler saved a wicked dipping blast from Getzinger.
"The ball fell off the hands of their keeper,” said Velasco. “My job as a winger is to come in from the outside. When I saw the left outside back and the keeper a little confused, then the ball going off the shin guard of their back, the opportunity was right there for me.”
Prior to the opener, the Gators enjoyed most of the play, especially in the midfield. That came in part due to the endless work-rate from Getzinger, Prus and Brendan Lewis, who drew plenty of praise from his manager and teammates afterward.
"Brendan just battled out there all night long," began Chris Slawek, who got a birds-eye view of the action from his spot between the sticks for the Gators.
"Brendan did all of the little things we needed to do out there today as our holding mid, because Notre Dame (Peoria) was so good at sending layer after layer at us, especially after we went up two goals midway through the second half," added Allen.
"(They) outworked us in the first half," admitted senior Thomas Graham, the fine center back for the Irish who, along with teammate Kayden Hudson, were named IHSSCA All-State last week. “We gave up that first goal and never really found any rhythm until the second half."
Hudson, who missed the Friday semifinal win over St. Laurence due to an undisclosed issue, was a player the Gators kept a close eye on.
His 40 goals on the season were an obvious reason for caution. So too were his ability to create danger with or without the ball.
The Gators did well to pass Hudson off to each other when the junior made his way into the final third. With the exception of helping facilitate an attempt by teammate Sebastian Salazar and a couple of well-placed corners into the box, the Gators did well managing the Irish star.
Moments after the Velasco goal, Hudson was booked for a foul on Getzinger, who fired the subsequent 22-yard free kick off the side netting.
With a yellow midway through the first period, Bare moved Hudson deep in the formation, almost in the role of the six, to protect his main man from a second card.
The Irish catalyst earned a corner at 32 minutes that led to Salazar going close at the back post.
With Crystal Lake South still bossing the middle of the park to keep the Irish at bay, a late flurry of activity led to a trio of Gators chances before the break. The best was a Prus smash saved by Dimler.
"We moved Kayden (Hudson) outside to start the second half, Salazar wide, and targeted Declan Schuler more," said Bare of his second half tactical changes.
The move caused a few nervy moments for Crystal Lake South at the onset of the second half before Prus provided a tonic for the Gators faithful and silenced a raucous Irish crowd.
A Gators throw-in in the middle of Notre Dame (Peoria) territory was thrown short on the sideline to Getzinger. He saw Prus left alone and ready to strike inside the “20” field number to his right. The junior took the pass and a touch and teed-up a mesmerizing right-footed blast from 30 yards that darted over a helpless Theodore Dimler into the far upper 90 of the net.
"I thought I had enough time and space, so I just took the shot from distance," Prus said in a matter-of-fact way.
"Don't let Nick fool you," said Allen. "We see those types of shots from him in training all of the time. It's a goal none of us will ever forget."
Prus nearly added upon his brilliant 47th-minute cracker with another long-range shot that dipped and hit the post before bouncing wide just before the hour.
Now with the task of protecting the most dangerous lead in the sport of soccer, the Gators prepared themselves for an onslaught of pressure from the Irish.
"We knew they would be coming at us for the last 20 minutes of the game," said Allen. "Except for a micro nap, we held firm and really stayed composed even after they made it 2-1. Our backline has been there all season for us."
The Irish halved the Gators advantage when a searing long throw from Hudson found Schuler in-close and alone. The 6-foot-3 sophomore elevated to redirect his header into an open net.
The 59th-minute goal signaled the start of a wild and wide-open final stretch.
Dimler was called into action to save a Nolan Getzinger smash. That was followed by a smart save from Crystal Lake South’s Slawek on a nifty looping effort from Hudson.
Both sides traded corners and deep throws, much to the angst and excitement of the fans from both clubs.
The Irish claimed four deep throws to three for the Gators after the Schuler goal, and earned one more corner than Allen’s men (2-1).
"Our backline was amazing, especially in the final 10-12 minutes," began Gators quad-captain Getzinger. "(Diego) Paguada, Garrett Hess, Pierce (Johnson) and Blake (Marunde) deserve so much credit for what they did for us in this game."
Slawek made a brave save on Teddy LaHood in the 80th minute seconds after a non-call by the referee.
"We really thought Hudson was hauled down from behind near the spot. The referee chose not to make the call during a key moment in the game when you would expect the officials to come through," said a disappointed Bare.
After the match the Irish were, almost to a man, slumped in gut-wrenching disbelief throughout the pitch after the final whistle.
"Credit South, they did what they needed to do in order to win this game," began Bare. "We beat them over the summer, maybe 3-0, 4-0, but I reminded the guys that was entirely different conditions with a 30-minute running clock. We needed to expect them to come at us for 80 minutes.
"(Brian) Allen seems to have our number right now. In 2018, they beat us in kicks in the final. That one was hard to take, but this one was also. You always remember these types of tough losses compared to the victories, but credit Brian and his guys.”
"I really do not expect any of us a week from now to say we had a great season," said Hudson. “We just did not play well in the first half and not as good as we have been after the break
"We were close, and it felt like we were going to pull this one out, but in the end we just didn’t have enough."
The Irish will return 18 from their 2023 roster, including six of the first 11.
Several matches during the regular-season helped Crystal Lake South hone its game.
"That 4-3 loss to Lake Zurich (Sept. 9) really brought into focus how important it would be for us to be more physical. The 4-2 loss at our place to Huntley (Sept. 28) maybe was the result that helped us regain our focus," opined Allen.
The Gators finished the season with 12-straight victories and eight shutouts after the Huntley defeat. They outscored their opponents 35-4 during the run.
Getzinger, Prus, Slawek and Velasco agreed that there were far too many heroes in the championship match to single out one. It spotlighted how complete of a roster the Gators had during their newest championship season.
"During the playoffs especially, it always seemed a different player or two would step up when we needed it most. That's how you get in a position to win a state championship," offered Getzinger.
"A lot of behind-the-scenes stuff with these guys, all very positive -- the commitment to each other to be great teammates," said Allen. "That's something all of us are very proud of."
Crystal Lake South (4-3-3)
G- Chris Slawek
D- Diego Paguada
D- Garrett Hess
D- Pierce Johnson
D- Blake Marunde
M- Brendan Lewis
M- Nick Prus
M- Nolan Getzinger
F- Nico Velasco
F- Mason Ross
F- Ali Ahmed
Notre Dame (Peoria/4-3-3)
G- Theodore Dimler
D- Fabi Arellano
D- Thomas Graham
D- Patrick O'Donnell
D- Nathan Oliver
M- Cal Brykit
M- Thatcher Hogan
M- Teddy LaHood
F- Sebastian Salazer
F- Kayden Hudson
F- Declan Schuler
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Nick Prus, jr., MF, Crystal Lake South
Officials: Kevin Parker (referee); Tom Franken (AR1); Tony Martinez (AR2); Gabriel Lutterschmidt (4th)
Crystal Lake South: Velasco (unassisted), 26'
Crystal Lake South: Prus (Getzinger), 47'
Notre Dame (Peoria): Schuler (Hudson), 58'
Crystal Lake South: 7
Notre Dame (Peoria): 7
Crystal Lake South: 5
Notre Dame (Peoria): 7
Crystal Lake South: 2
Notre Dame (Peoria): 3
Deep throws (inside 25 yards)
Crystal Lake South: 7
Notre Dame (Peoria): 8
Crystal Lake South: 1
Notre Dame (Peoria): 0
Crystal Lake South: 5
Notre Dame (Peoria): 10
Crystal Lake South: 0
Notre Dame (Peoria): 3