The final weekend of the soccer season, especially now with the new IHSA finals format, is the embodiment of prep futbol excellence and passion. The games feature competition at its most intense with the biggest prize in all three classes on the line.
The moments and memories will live long in all involved – especially the champions. For Crystal Lake South (22-4-1) and manager Brian Allen, the experience of winning the program’s second, Class AA title was hard to put into words.
The path to glory was capped with the knowledge that all the hard work, dedication, attention to detail and belief in the team was rewarded in the end.
The 2023 championship match told the classic story of the perceived underdog, Crystal Lake South, versus the much-fancied and -favored side from Notre Dame (Peoria). The Irish (22-1-3) went into the final without a loss to an Illinois team. The only defeat came against Christian Brothers, an Elite Eight team from Missouri’s Class 4, which is its largest division. Notre Dame tied Chaminade (Mo.), Normal West and Elgin.
Defending state champion Notre Dame entered this fixture with a best of class four state titles. The Irish sought to defend their crown after topping Glenwood 3-1 a year ago.
Crystal Lake South returned to the state finals for the first time since its back-to-back trips in 2018-19. The Gators claimed their first title over Notre Dame in a 2018 shootout after a 3-3 tie through 100 minutes. The following fall they finished second, losing 2-0 to Benet in the final.
Notre Dame's AA state final exploits have been nothing short of sensational. Its eight state trophies include three runnerup finishes, the most of any club. The IHSA moved to a three-class system in the fall of 2008.
In this year’s title match on Nov. 4 at Hoffman Estates High School, Crystal Lake South shocked the highly regarded Irish. In the 26th minute, the Gators stunned Notre Dame with a Nico Velasco goal for a 1-0 lead. The Gators tacked on a 30-yard thunderbolt from Nick Prus in the 47th minute for their final goal. They then held off their valiant opponent for the rest of the match, especially in a nerve-wracking and hair-raising final 10 minutes, for a 2-1 championship triumph.
"It was such a dramatic ending when we won in 2018. Both the semifinal and final went to pens," began Allen, who ended his 17th season with complete rapture.
"I remember falling to my knees after that 2018 final was over -- just completely overcome with joy, and maybe a little disbelief. This time I found myself on my knees, because I was just so happy for every single one of our guys who embraced their roles and collectively put in the effort needed to lift the championship trophy."
Notre Dame entered the title match with a 17-game unbeaten streak (14-0-3) and plenty of motivation to avenge its 2018 loss. Crystal Lake South won 11-straight matches before the final.
"Every team has its little hiccups along the way," continued Allen, who starred between the sticks for long-time Rolling Meadows manager Chuck Petersen before a collegiate career at DePaul University.
"We stayed the course and learned from the first three weeks of the season with a respectable 4-3-1 record. The full benefit in our good and poor performances was learning from our mistakes and not repeating them when it really counted in FVC (Fox Valley Conference) play and the state series.
"When you trace back to last summer, we played Notre Dame and lost 3-0. The improvement from that late June game to this final weekend was off the chart. The guys truly maxed out our growth journey."
Crystal Lake South turned its last loss of the season into a motivational tool.
"(Things) really changed for us after that Huntley loss (4-2, Sept. 28)," began Nolan Getzinger, who along with Garrett Hess, Brenden Lewis and Blake Marunde proudly wore the captain’s armbands for the Gators.
"Giving up (four) at home, and to one of our biggest conference rivals (Huntley), really hit us hard.
"Aside from the few adjustments we needed to make after that loss, I feel like we mentally became a stronger team. After that, nothing stopped us."
"We became so much better after that loss to Huntley," agreed Lewis. "We needed to clean things up in our set piece defending, Our mental approach was a big reason for our success."
In Crystal Lake South’s pre-title game run, the Gators outscored their opponents 34-4. The team’s schedule played a roll in its postseason success.
"We played 11 conference/division champions out of our 27 games; going 8-3-0 overall," said Allen, who compiled a stack of salient stats.
"Three of our losses came against state power and MSL champion Palatine, Lake Zurich, who won the North Suburban Conference and Huntley, who we shared the FVC crown with.
"Palatine was a great team, and they got us early (6-0, Aug. 30) at the Alonso Sanchez Memorial Classic at Wauconda. The 2-0 loss to Grayslake Central came against the eventual no. 1 seed in our sectional."
The four losses the Gators suffered during the season came against clubs with a combined 60-17-6 record.
“No bad losses there, and we learned from each of them," offered Allen.
Overall, Crystal Lake South’s 27 opponents went 310-227-42, which Allen computed to 11.5 wins per team.
"We played arguably the toughest schedule I've constructed in my (17) years against several 3A schools and some of the best in AA,” the coach said. “It prepared us for the Fox Valley Conference, which is made up of half 3A and AA teams and, of course, the postseason.”
"I actually felt after our real early 4-2 win over Boylan (Aug. 26) -- always a great AA team -- that we had the talent to be a very good team," said quad-captain Marunde, who was a key figure on the outside of the Gators backline along with teammate Diego Paguada.
"I am not the most vocal person. I had a great talk before the season with (assistant coach) Zane (Boettcher) about being a great team leader by setting a good example through my work ethic and developing positive relationships with my teammates, especially the young guys. I think being a strong leader, like our other captains, really helped bring everyone together."
Boettcher knew something about winning at Crystal Lake South. The former Gators soccer player starred on the track team and still holds the school records in the 100 and 200 meters and ranks second on the 4 X 100 relay list. He ran in the 200 meters at the state meet. After high school, the 2012 graduate became a Marine and served from 2012-21. His four deployments as an F-18 airframe mechanic-maintenance controller included two stops in Bahrain and one in Japan aboard the USS Nimitz.
Fellow assistant Adam Gatza is a 2011 Gators grad. He was in Allen's First 11 for three years as an outside back and was part of the Gators first two FVC and regional championship clubs in 2009 and 2010. Those teams went a combined 40-6-4 and the 2010 group still holds several program records.
Allen’s calls first assistant and de facto co-manager Tony Allen one of his best friends.
"We are often sometimes mistaken for brothers because of our last names and for how long we've been together on the touchline,” said Allen. “The fact is he is like a brother to me because of the things we've been through during that time.
“He's been a major influence on my life as a player and a big reason for me going on to pursue a career in education and coaching, much like Chuck Petersen has.
"With almost 30 total years of coaching experience with his time at Rolling Meadows, Marian Central and now his (17) years with me, we're able to bounce ideas off of each other and find a way to maximize our potential while offsetting our opponents’ strengths.
"To have two former players on our staff who are able to relate to the younger players and relay some of the good and not-so-good stories from when they played, has been an great bonus to me, Tony and the program. Of course, having someone like Tony next to me is a dream come true.”
Tony Allen has a rich local history in the sport.
"I've been fortunate to play for Chuck Petersen, then assist with him and them Jim McNamara at Larkin, before moving over to coach and teach at Marian Central, where we reached the (Class A) state finals in 2003," recounted Tony Allen, who teaches AP history and economics at South Elgin High School.
"I focus on our defense and keepers. (The coaches) come together at the intermission to focus on all parts of our game. The amazing thing about Brian is beneath that hard-nosed, intense exterior is a person who deeply loves what he does and the young men that he is honored to coach."
"(Brian Allen) can be tough on us, but we all know how much he cares for all of us, both in soccer and as people. I feel very lucky to have played for him throughout my high school career," said quad-captain Hess.
He and Pierce Johnson formed a sturdy, airtight partnership as the Gators central defenders. They paired with outside backs Marunde and Paguada into a formidable foursome in front of keeper Chris Slawek, who was positively brilliant when his club needed him the most.
The senior was sensational in the championship game, particularly late when the Irish threw everything forward in search of the equalizer.
Slawek and fellow keeper Nolan Schofield were part of 14 clean-sheets on the season. That was the same number the 2018 state championship club collected.
Crystal Lake South earned 22 victories in 2023, which tied for the program record with the 2004 and 2018 clubs. The four losses tied for third lowest. The Gators 12-consecutive victories to end the season fell one short of the program record set in 1992 and equaled in 2010.
"We were very good when set piece opportunities were created," said Brian Allen.
"Game-winners in our regional final, both goals in sectional semifinal game with Grayslake North, then the final against Harvard came from set pieces. But all of our goals from the supersectional to the final were through the run of play."
"We had a little bit of a rough start along the backline until we got a few games under us,” said Hess, who saw the defense surrender 11 goals in the first four games, but allow only 16 in the final 23. “We all were able to sort out what the coaches wanted from us.
"Pierce is crazy good; Diego really came on during the last half of the season. Blake and I were just two players who have been around from the start. When it clicked, I felt like we, as a group, would be a real strength to the team."
Hess, Getzinger, Johnson, Lewis, Marunde, Prus, and Ali Ahmed were all named all-conference after the season.
Ahmed, a junior, demonstrated invention, intelligence and relentless drive in the final third to lead the club with 25 goals. He added four assists. Getzinger was next with 16 goals and a dazzling school-record 29 helpers, the biggest of which came with his pass to Prus that set up the championship game-winner. Getzinger, who also assisted the game-winner in the semifinals, surpassed the previous mark of 22 set by two-time All-American Paul Lekics, who went on to star at Creighton University.
Ahmed led the team with five game-winners, one more than Prus and Velasco.
The Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association honored Getzinger with his second all-state nod. Marunde earned an All-Academic Team award. Hess was recognized with the sportsmanship honor, and Ahmed and Johnson took all-section honors.
"All of this really took a while to sink in,” said Getzinger, who along with Velasco and Lewis is reviewing collegiate options. “It became a little more of a reality when we came back to school, and everyone was coming up to us to congratulate us on our state title. I am sure when we do our ring ceremony, it will feel even more amazing."
The Gators are tentatively scheduled to receive their championship rings at the boys basketball game Feb. 13.
The Getzinger family name has long been associated with soccer excellence. Nolan’s great uncle Rudy enjoyed an illustrious career on the international field and later played with the United States Men's National Team. He was inducted in the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1991.
"I haven't had a lot of times with Uncle Rudy, but the stories I hear about him through my father are really great, as you can imagine," said Nolan.
Rudy Getzinger played with the U.S. Olympic Team in 1963 and 1968, but did not earn his first official caps until 1972. The Austrian-born midfielder went on to collect eight caps as a midfielder. Locally he played for Schwaben AC, and with the Chicago Sting (1975-76) before calling it quits due to knee injuries.
The latest Getzinger success story added to the family and program legacies.
Nolan is the last of the brothers in the program and ends a 10-year run with a family member in the program. Nikolas played four years of varsity from 2014-2017 (Class of 2018), and Ty (Class of 2021) competed in three seasons.
The brothers make numerous appearances in the program record book besides Nolan’s new season-assist mark. Nolan ranks second all-time in helpers with 43; Nikolas had 17, which is tied for 17th place.
In goal-scoring categories, Nolan’s 16 game-winners rank sixth all-time; Nikolas’ 11 ranks ninth. Nolan’s 22 goals in 2022 is tied for 16th; Nikolas had 19 in 2015, which is tied for 22nd. Nikolas leads the family in career goals with 53 (eighth); Nolan has 48 to sit in 10th place.
On the career points chart, Nolan ranks sixth with 139 (48 goals/43 assists); Nikolas is 10 with 123 (53/17).
Ty was a member of Crystal Lake South's state championship team in 2018 and runnerup team in 2019.
Now Nolan can share championship memories.
"I feel that (2-0) win over Harvard in the sectional final was a real statement win for us," he said.
"We knew when we advanced into the final against Notre Dame that it was important to set the tone early on. When Nico (Velasco) got the early opener, we all felt we could do this."
Velasco claimed the lone goal in the state semifinal victory over Rochester the day before. He once again sent a message after his sublime opener in the championship match.
The Gators could not have played a better first half of soccer in the final.
After Prus’ eventual game-winner, Crystal Lake South sat in the driver’s seat. However, like the true championship side it is, Notre Dame fought back and made Crystal Lake South sweat.
"We knew we would have to play tight defense for the last 20 minutes or so and not concede the equalizer,” Marunde said. “When it was over, it was an unbelievable feeling.
"Coach (Brian Allen) puts so much into all of us, both on the field and in school. There's a lot of pride in this program because of him.”
"For us four guys (with Getzinger, Hess and Marunde), who are all four-year varsity players, there was some pressure knowing of the 2018 championship team and us hoping to give the program and school another state title," said Lewis.
"Although we have all new players and a different style of play compared to that 2018 team, we all wanted the same for ourselves. When it happened, it was a great feeling."
"For me, it was all kind of surreal when the final ended," said Hess. "It was a real fight for the last 15-20 minutes. It didn't really sink in right away, but it's something we will all have for the rest of our lives."
Contributions to the championship season came from throughout the roster.
"There we so many pleasant surprises on this team -- too many to list,” Brian Allen said. “However, being a former keeper, I'd have to say Chris Slawek really came through for us. In the early stages of the season, he had a few rough spots. But as his confidence grew so did his play. Down the stretch, he was just amazing,
"It was an incredible ride. What a joy it was to be a part of the players’ journey -- and what a terrific bunch of young men all of them are."
Tony Allen added: "This team, possibly more than any other in my 30 years, improved the most over the course of the season. With (Brian) it's always about improving with each training session and game, and to a player they took this to heart.
"It might mean more to Brian how his men handle themselves during the game -- no yelling at the referee or each other, how they handle success and failure, and to always play with honor, sportsmanship and just doing what's right.
"It's what makes him such a good coach, manager and person."
"You can always dream of playing for a state title, but only just a few have that opportunity,” Brian Allen said. “We were fortunate to win it twice, and I know the boys can now see how the daily grind and constant work paid off."
After taking the program’s first state trophy, the Gators returned to the final the following year. Next season, Brian Allen will have 12 back from his varsity roster, five of whom started against Notre Dame.