skip navigation

Preview story: Early meeting between Saint Viator, Benet will impact ESCC race

By Mike Garofola, 04/01/24, 10:00AM CDT


Despite a nearly 30-mile separation from one another, the East Suburban Catholic Conference match between Benet and Saint Viator on Wednesday afternoon has all the feel of a traditional English derby.

These two longtime rivals and league powers have dominated the top of the table for years. The clubs hold a combined 19 solo or shared titles, including the last three that Benet has carried home. The league held its first girls season in 1996.

According to the Chicagoland Soccer archives, Benet, which hosts the match at its Lisle campus, is on a roll in the series. In the last 13 meetings, the Redwings hold an 11-0-2 mark.

Benet, which has finished second in Class AA the past two seasons, will be keen to continue its long streak of success at its soccer park. However visiting Saint Viator (5-0-0), which is the top-ranked team in the Chicagoland Soccer Class AA Super 7 poll, arrives with a full head of steam after outscoring its early opponents 26-4.

"We have a terrific mix of really good returning players, as well as some very talented freshmen, which has helped us get off to a great start to the season," said Lions senior Meghan McLaughlin, who proudly wears the captain’s armband with teammates Taylor Brackett, Monica Correa and Chicagoland Soccer All-State Watch List member Allsion Konopka.

McLaughlin was an all-ESCC choice a year ago along with Correa, Kiley Wrzos and Joey Westerkamp, who later earned IHSSCA All-State honors.

"This season we are connecting our passes, and building our attack really well. We are so much more technical than we were a year ago," added McLaughlin, who will attend Ohio State in the fall where she will pursue a degree in sports management.

McLaughlin joins freshman Frannie Drake in the middle of the back four. Another freshman, Kate Ziebka, is paired with junior Emma Mikrut on the outside of the 4-3-3 formation coach Byron DeLeon usually opens with.

"On occasion, we'll play two (6s), because we have the players who can play there," McLaughlin said. “With Taylor (Brackett), Allison (Konopka) and Monica Correa really coming through with scoring goals, we feel like we can compete so much better this year.

"This game with Benet is big for both teams. For me, and I'm sure the rest of my teammates, we are all super-charged for Wednesday."

The stingy backline of Benet (2-2-1, 1-0-0), which currently sits in the honorable mention section of the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, has a key figure in senior Bailey Abbott. She and her teammates will need to overcome an uncharacteristic slow start to to meet the challenge of moving up to Class 3A. A big graduation hit to the roster did the Redwings no favors.

"We lost so many great players, including four of our captains, and many others who were 3-4-year stars who we relied on," began Abbott, who will pursue a degree in chemistry after deciding upon either Michigan State, Indiana or Penn State, which she visited this past week.

"Our 3-0 win the other day against Nazareth was important for us. It gave us the momentum boost we needed heading into this game with Saint Viator, who we expect to come ready to play," continued Abbott, who plays alongside Meghan Sarros as the Redwings central defenders, while teammates Gabby Hedden and Chloe Sentman operate on the outside.

"We've had a tough early schedule with Metea Valley and Wheaton North, both one-goal losses. But it's slowly coming together for us, because we've stayed positive. The morale of the team remains very high, and I feel like we are tactically understanding things so much better right now."

The Redwings graduated a trio of Chicagoland Soccer All-State players: first team keeper Shannon Clark, midfielder Reese MacDonald and East Suburban Catholic Conference Player of the Year Sadie Sterbenz, who earned 11 starts last fall at Middle Tennessee State.

In addition, the Redwings will play without Chicagoland All-State Watch List junior Keira Petrucelli (11 goals, 11 assists), who suffered a season-ending injury.

"Every season presents new challenges for us, especially after this year (graduating) a number of four-year varsity players who provided not only vocal leadership, but also a sense of physicality and aggression that we are working on replacing," said manager Gerard Oconer, who sports a 119-25-3 mark in his seventh year in charge.

"Our team this season has improved technical ability with the ball and has been able to take control of the midfield in each of our five games," continued Oconer.

"Our defense and keeper (Kate Grubish) have been steady and have limited the amount of chances. Our forwards have created dangerous opportunities for us, but we're still in the process of refining our identity in the final third and need to improve our finishing."

Oconer and his staff will benefit from the play of two more All-State Watch Listers. Senior Rania Fikri and sophomore Ivana Vukas combined for 24 goals and 15 helpers last spring.