NEW LENOX – Although Lincoln-Way West’s soccer team has excelled on defense all season and Lincoln-Way Central has struggled to score goals of late, it was a good bet that Friday’s Class 3A Lincoln-Way Central Regional championship match would be a close one.
After all, the Warriors won, 1-0, on penalties when the squads met May 2.
Also, the rivalry between the New Lenox schools figured to keep matters tight, as would the strong winds and cold and rainy weather that definitely prevented both sides from executing effectively.
Both the Warriors and Knights struggled to come up with good opportunities and when play concluded, only one attempt found the net and that came on a shot that was deflected.
West collected the match’s lone goal in the 68th minute when Carissa Knezz sent a pass to senior Breanna Bembenek, whose try from the side deflected off a defender before finding the net, which gave it a 1-0 win for its fourth straight regional title, and its first in Class 3A.
Coach Jeff Theiss’ Warriors (14-6-2) advance to the Class 3A Sandburg Sectional where they meet Lincoln-Way East in a semifinal match at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The Griffins advanced with a 7-0 victory over Eisenhower in their own regional.
Senior keeper Erin Toomey recorded her 14th shutout of the year and benefited from the defensive efforts of center backs Savina Filip and Kate Honan and outside backs Samantha Sarna and senior Olivia Judge.
“The backline has been phenomenal,” Theiss said. “We moved Savina from center mid to center back about five games ago and Kate has been center back all year. Sam was a center back, but we moved her outside and that has allowed her opportunities to get forward. And Olivia is the other outside, and she is so smart and tactically sound and puts herself where she needs to be. We’ve only allowed 13 goals in 22 games, so I’m very proud of them.
“In the first half, we had a beautiful combination that hit the post. We tell the girls to fire away and Bembe did a great job of turning and facing up. She had a shot that redirected off an excellent center back, and it ended up in the back of the net. It was going to be a grind with the wind like this, and it was a case of who wanted it more. It’s a cross-district rivalry in a regional final, so records go out the window. I thought it was a great game both ways.”
The Knights (10-13-1) had the first good chance in the sixth minute when Alyte Katilius lined in a corner kick that was punched away by Toomey. In the 10th minute, Warriors senior Madison Mikalauski went wide to Jane Pinkerton, who fired in a cross to Sara Loichinger, whose try deflected off of the post.
“We didn’t have Lady Luck this year,” Knights coach Dan Radz said. “We were scoring at will early, but after a while, we stopped. But we had a good group of kids and good seniors.”
West had the wind in the final half and had more good chances to connect than did the hosts. A pass from Bembenek to Kylee Brandau in the 41st minute looked like it led to a score on a short shot, but the goal was disallowed by an offside call. The pair was at it again in the 46th minute, but a header was hauled in by Peyton Vecchiet.
After being denied in the 55th minute, Bembenek’s next opportunity proved to be the lone score of the match.
In the 70th minute, Central had one more good chance as Kailie Novak took a free kick from just beyond the top of the box, but her effort went wide of the mark.
“At halftime we knew that we needed to put the ball in the mix to try to get a shot on net or put something in there that might get deflected in, and that happened,” Bembenek said. “This game meant the world to us since we didn’t want it to end. The energy was definitely there and it was just about putting that onto the field. We’ve really connected well. We’ve all gotten super close and it’s like a family. They’re my sisters and I’d do anything for them.”
With the Warriors performing so well defensively, they feel good about their chances in a wide-open sectional, which includes Andrew and the hosts, who also play on Wednesday.
“This is a great team to be on since there’s talented players all over the field,” Toomey said. “It’s a big thing to be able to trust the people that I have in front of me and I’m very lucky. We got three starters from Central and it’s really benefited us. We only have five seniors and it’s great to say that in every year of high school that we won regionals. Everybody gets along so well and it’s great to transfer that energy off the field to on it. It’s a really special group.”