Chicago Sun-Times

On the Ball

By Patrick Z. McGavin

The Sun-Times published its girls soccer preview last week. Already the season is topsy-turvy, with early upsets, as teams have struggled to get consistent outdoor practice time because of the volatile weather, many schools having their spring breaks and just the nature of early season play.

For those who missed it, here is the top 20:

1. Buffalo Grove
2. Waubonsie Valley
3. Naperville North
4. Barrington
5. Neuqua Valley
6. Loyola
7. New Trier
8. Lake Forest
9. Plainfield North
10. St. Charles North

The second ten:

11. Naperville Central
12. Hinsdale Central
13. Sandburg
14. Lane
15. Lemont
16. Lyons
17. Hersey
18. Metea Valley
19. Geneva
20. Parker

Our top players list was restricted by space to just 50 players, 15 forwards, midfielders and defenders and five keepers. As one of the top five girls soccer markets in the country, many other quality teams and players were unfortunately left off. Here are some other teams to keep an eye, as well as players to watch.

Benet coach Bob Gros has gone to a new, more diversified offensive formation, and he has two elite players in Michelle Morefield and Katie Baumann.

Traditional power Conant experienced a transition year after the graduation of former Sun-Times Player of the Year Courtney Raetzman. Young players earned the necessary experience. Conant opened the year with a 2-1 victory over No. 10 St. Charles North, and is solid in all phases of the game with star senior defender Drew Wentzel, junior forward Leah Celarek and junior keeper Haley Anderson.

Lake Zurich coach Mike Castronova has nine returning starters back from a year ago. Senior midfielder Meaghan Gelinas is a star, and Ohio-recruit Kaitlyn McCurley keys the backline, with keeper Elly Daleske and defender Maggie Tuckey.

Lincoln-Way North has won four consecutive conference titles and is off to a blistering 5-0 start, capped by its 1-0 victory over Glenbard East in the championship of the Windy City Ram Classic last Saturday at Toyota Park. Brenna Stremlau scored the game-winner and keeper Bethany Dombkowski has been superb. Senior forward Lexi Cesario and sophomore forward Rachel Pappas (nine goals as a freshman) are the offensive catalysts.

Naperville North and Naperville Central have dominated the DuPage Valley, but watch out for Glenbard East and Wheaton Warrenville South. Glenbard East is 4-1 after the tight loss to Lincoln-Way North and survived a strong Fenwick team in the semifinals. Coach Kent Overbey has nine returning starters, led by senior midfielder Alex Ruffer, a Western Michigan-recruit, Megan Mrazek, and gifted sophomore forward Brittany Paganucci (who had nine goals and seven assists as a freshman). Juniors Haley Lydon and Rachel Anderson share keeping responsibilities.

At WW South, veteran coach Guy Callipari has six returning starters, keyed by one of the state's top juniors, midfielder AJ Jakuszewski (who played a prominent role on the U-18 national champion club team), sophomore forward Anna Fank and sophomore defender Tory Adomshick. Junior keeper Abby Fuster is another standout.

Deerfield in a team to watch in Class 2A, with eight returning starters and a strong supporting freshman class. Senior keeper Bailey Bradford has 16 career shutouts, and junior forward Emily Kellow (13 goals a year ago) is another standout.

Batavia coach Mark Gianfrancesco returns a strong nucleus from a 13-win team, led by sophomore forward Megan McEachern (15 goals, eight assists), junior midfielder Alexis Bryl (three goals, 10 assists) and junior defender Ali Grimm.

Prospect returns virtually its entire team, 10 starters, from last year's 13-win outfit. Midfielders Sammy Minasian, Markita Maggos and forwards Sarah LaCost and Emily Novak are the ones to watch. Stevenson has six starters back and three talented club players in Katy Karabetsos, Sophia Godoy and Erin Bailey.

A new month brings the start of the girls season. The IHSA formally permits the beginning of practice this week for the girls' season. Many programs are staging tryouts and launching the start of the new season.

Weather permitting, there are some dynamite games the opening week of the season, beginning in the middle of the month. Two-time defending Class 3A state champion Naperville North is scheduled to play two teams from last year's state finals, Barrington and Hinsdale Central, in the opening week of the season.

The Huskies graduated two-times All-area star Zoe Swift, who scored both goals in the Huskies' 2-1 victory over Hinsdale Central in the state championship last June at North Central. Coach Steve Goletz must also contend with the loss of his two other captains, crucial three-year starters Christa Szalach and Cora Climo.

The biggest story surrounding the Huskies' three-peat hopes is predicated on the health of star Abbie Boswell, the state's top junior. Boswell had an extraordinary sophomore campaign in scoring 27 goals and administering 10 assists for the 22-0-2 Huskies. She also had knee surgery last September.

Naperville North returns two other excellent midfielders in senior Meghan Lee and junior Claire Hilburger, tough, experienced players, and star junior keeper Fiona Baenziger, who allowed just 16 goals in 24 games last year.

Even with the graduation losses, Naperville North looks to be formidable.

Defending Class 3A third-place finisher Barrington is another team to watch. Coach Ryan Stengren must replace one of the greatest players in school history, current Marquette player Molly Pfeiffer. If Boswell is the state's best junior, the electrifying and fast forward Jenna Szczesny is right behind her. She scored 24 goals last year in leading the Fillies.

She heads a superb junior class that also features star keeper Hannah Luedtke and midfielders Megan Fox and Kelsey Muniz. Seniors Elli Ackermann and Mia Calamari are also very skilled.

The Fillies defeated MSL rival Buffalo Grove in the third-place game. It was a disappointing to an extraordinary year for the Bison, who won the Pepsi Showdown and advanced to the state semifinals for the first time in more than two decades.

Astonishingly, Pat Dudle had just three seniors on his entire roster. He returns virtually his entire team, led by All Area star Kelli Zickert, who scored 31 goals and had 11 assists for the 25-win Bison last year. Her twin sister Colleen is also back, as are Allie Ingham, Jessica Kovach and Sara Busse.

Hinsdale Central coach Michael Smith proved himself one of the rising stars in his field, and the Red Devils

That's just last year's Class 3A semifinalists. Waubonsie Valley, Loyola, New Trier, Neuqua Valley, Naperville Central, Plainfield North, Lockport, Sandburg and Hersey also return loaded and dangerous players from a year ago. It looks to be a great season.

In the city, Lane has a new coach, Michelle Vale-Suarez, and a stacked lineup, led by Sofia Pavon and a great junior class headed by Natalie Wade. Payton won a Class 2A sectional title and Young is always dangerous. Defending Class 1A state runner-up Parker features the prolific and very skilled Olivia Amdur.

For soccer fans, that wait is nearly over.

Aficionados of Public League soccer, looking back on this season, have much to rejoice about.

Washington put together a magical postseason run to become the surprise and stunning Class 2A state champions, becoming the second city school in the last three years to capture a state championship (joining the now shuttered Harrison and Mather). The Patriots lost the pool play bracket in the city tournament on a tiebreaker, and used that as motivation to spring its run.

There was much else to celebrate.

Lane reached as high as No. 2 in the Chicago Sun-Times' ranking and became the first public city school to capture the prestigious Pepsi Showdown when the Indians beat highly-regarded Morton on the first Sunday in October. The Fuentes twins, seniors Jose and Sergio, proved themselves among the state's top players.

Lake View made a remarkable run in the city tournament, staging late rallies to beat Taft and Solorio in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively. For the encore, the Wildcats pulled off one of the greatest shockers in the history of the city finals by beating Lane 2-1 in overtime.

It is not just about results and process. Young had a great story about senior Abreham Belay, a senior who'd never played on the team before who came out this year, was part of the rotation and became in time a leading offensive threat. The Ethiopian-born Belay is deaf, one of four hearing-impaired students who competed in a fall sport for the Dolphins.

After his team won the Pepsi Showdown title, Lane coach Andrew Ricks dedicated the victory to the wider, communal culture of the Public League, acknowledging the inherent difficulties of coaching there while also praising the commitment and work ethic of his colleagues and peers. He basically said, rightly, I believe, that for all its perceived dysfunction, the Public League is a source for a lot of good.

The soccer embodies many of those finest qualities, especially on matters of diversity and race.

In the three-class Illinois state tournament, Public League programs won five regional titles. Noble Street won in Class 1A, and Amundsen, Kennedy, Little Village and Lake View in 2A.

Public League soccer coordinator Tommy Smith summed it up perfectly: "I'm going to be meeting with the coaches and [athletic directors] and what I'm going to say is, this year was the best and worst of time for the Public League."

The negative developments of the final weeks of the season threatened to overshadow these wider accomplishments. The seriousness of the transgressions tarnish the grassroots, committed work of many who have worked to elevate the quality of play and standards of achievement to the level of the best soccer conferences, such as West Suburban Conference, the DuPage Valley and Mid-Suburban League programs.

Kennedy forfeited the Class 2A sectional championship game at Riverside-Brookfield after the IHSA, acting on information supplied by St. Joseph, verified the Crusaders used an ineligible player in a sectional semifinal victory over St. Joseph. Astoundingly, Kennedy used an ineligible player to beat a team the school previously defeated in late September.

Prosser's program is facing serious sanctions as the IHSA conducts an inquiry into the actions of a player who allegedly physically and verbally assaulted an official in the Falcons' Class 2A regional final with Amundsen on Oct. 25th. This devastating news tarnished an otherwise breakthrough year for the Falcons, who won the 1st Division North and qualified for the Public League quarterfinals. Prosser is scheduled to move up to the elite Premier division next year.

In the quarterfinals of the Public League city tournament, Mather's victory on penalty kicks over Young was voided after the Rangers were also discovered to have played an ineligible player. In the Kennedy and Mather cases, the player in question had also played simultaneously for an academy team.

The coaches of both Mather and Kennedy feigned ignorance, claiming they were unaware of the players' involvement with club soccer. Smith said he is going to be adamant about making sure coaches and athletic directors are aware of academy soccer going forward. "The academy soccer clubs are very public about who's playing for them," he said. "They have their own website, they keep stats, you can see who does what in each game."

The Public League is, admittedly, sui generis, from the Latin, meaning "of its own kind," and it has often relished its outsider or renegade reputation. The problem is the Public League, especially in matters involving the state tournament, has to interact with the rest of the world.

The postseason saw greatness and embarrassment exist side by side. Fortunately, Smith and other veteran coaches are leading the movement toward accountability and transparency for all schools. It is a welcome and necessary step.

Time waits for no one. The boys' fall soccer season is a blur. In the time it takes to get a handle on the sport, it is over. With just a little over a week left in the regular season, it is worthwhile to look at the seedings of the Class 3A state tournament, issued last week.

The small schools Class 1A tournament is the first weekend in Normal, at the Corn Crib.

The Class 2A and Class 3A finals have been shifted to Hoffman Estates after availability complications with former host school, Lincoln-Way North, in Frankfort.

Of late, the west suburban sectional winner typically was matched with the central or southern Illinois or downstate sectional winner. This year, the west suburban winner, hosted this year by Metea Valley, matches up with the Hinsdale South sectional winner.

As noted in today's paper, the Hinsdale South sectional, dubbed by some coaches "the death sectional," is headlined by four of our top-seven rated schools: top-ranked Hinsdale Central (No. 1 seed), No. 4 Morton (2), No. 6 Benet (3) and No. 7 Lyons (4).

Anything is possible, though it seems unlikely we are going to experience what happened last year when the same field was at Argo, a series of upsets in the regionals that saw Fenwick (which is now in Class 2A) stun Hinsdale Central in the sectional final.

Naperville Center, ranked No. 12 this week after its loss to Lake Park, has reached the state title game the last two years. At first glance, the Metea Valley sectional is a bit down, compared to previous editions. Naperville North, the No. 2 seed, has dropped out of the rankings for the first time this year after going 0-3-1 in its last four games.

Outside of the Redhawks, the teams worth watching here are No. 19 Batavia (3 seed) and Plainfield North (4).

The winner of Metea Valley and Hinsdale South square off in the supersectional round at Lewis University.

The south suburban sectional, this year at Andrew, matches up the weirdly arranged Joliet West winner, a mash-up of south suburban programs, Quad Cities schools and deep south and southwest programs stitched together, not by geography, linked by the dearth of Class 3A programs south of Joliet. Lockport, defending third-place finisher Sandburg, Lincoln-Way East and Stagg are the top four-seeds at Andrew.

The Andrew and Joliet West winners play at Normal for the supsectional.

The Hersey supersection binds together the winners of sectionals at Evanston and Mundelein. Seedings are a very inexact science, prone to bias, uncertainty and other factors. City power and Pepsi Showdown winner Lane is currently ranked higher by the Sun-Times (No. 2 in the new rankings) than the Evanston sectional, where the defending sectional finalist managed No. 3 seed, behind the host No. 16 Wildkits and No. 5 Wheeling. Making matters more complicated, if the seeds hold, the Indians have to face host New Trier, a No. 6 seed, on their own field.

At Mundelein, No. 8 Barrington is the top seed, followed by defending state champion Warren, No. 14 St. Viator (which just beat Evanston) and Hersey. Lake Forest, who carry a six-game win streak into its game with Lakes Thursday night, is the fifth seed. Speaking of St. Viator, coach Mike Taylor was very critical of the process where the Lions were bumped up a class (in part because larger enrollment schools received a waiver). The Lions go from being a favorite in Class 2A to facing a daunting bracket to get out of the sectional.

At the top of the bracket, the Bartlett supersectional pits the winner of Schaumburg and Huntley sectionals. At Schaumburg, top-seed and No. 3 St. Charles East is the clear favorite there, followed by No. 11 Lake Park and a dangerous Elk Grove team. Otherwise, it is a top-heavy field. Like Joliet West, Huntley is a four regional quadrant, the most stunning and questionable development is undefeated No. 10 Dundee-Crown earning a No. 3 regional seed (the equivalent of a 9-12 sectional seed) at Streamwood. Larkin, a team hovering at .500, is the No. 2 seed there.

The Bartlett and Hersey supersectional qualifiers meet in the first state semifinal on Nov. 8th. The Lewis and Normal winners face off in the second semifinal.

Talk about delayed gratification. Word broke late Wednesday the Pepsi Showdown championship match of No. 3 Morton and No. 4 Lane has been pushed back a week to Oct. 6th, at Toyota Park, in Bridgeview, at noon.

"We were looking forward to playing [this] Sunday," Lane senior Sergio Fuentes said. "Now we just have to wait a week."

The Pepsi Showdown has often functioned as a microcosm of the season, a grueling tournament that provides excellent context for gauging team's strengths, Lane making the championship underscores the wider strength of the Public League.

In a year without a clear-cut favorite for the state title (though No. 10 Wheaton Academy looks awfully imposing in Class 2A), Lane picked the right time to have potentially its greatest team ever. "We can play with any team in the state," coach Andrew Ricks said.

The 13-1-1 Indians beat Lyons, the defending tournament champion, on its own field en route to the final. They also beat a somewhat wounded though very dangerous Libertyville team in double overtime in the semifinals. Lyons and Libertyville were ranked No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, to start the year.

Not even Mather's dominant Class 2A state title team of two years ago reached the championship round. Lane is a trailblazer in that regard. The Indians are the headliner, though one of the intriguing subplots of this year's field was the impressive showing of Public League teams. That was evident on the first round of play, at Lyons.

The Public League nearly went 5-0 on that day. Lane, Washington, Kelly and Solorio (in an upset of Larkin) each advanced to the second round. Young gave Wheaton Academy everything it wanted before falling 2-1 in double-overtime.

The larger lessons from the Pepsi Showdown reiterate the state-wide parity. (Another interesting sidebar to the championship match: enrollment figures. Morton and Lane, by a wide margin, are the state's two largest schools, when you adjust the IHSA multiplier, in Lane's case. Morton has 8,158 students. Lane has 4,41, but that number goes to just under 6,678, as a non-boundary school.)

Morton is in the final for the second consecutive year and third time in the last four years. Mike Caruso's team, which won the Class 3A state title two years ago, is rarely flashy; the Mustangs just win, typically by narrow margins of 1-0, or 2-1. The one-goal differential sometimes comes back to haunt the Mustangs, like last year in a Class 3A regional final against Oak Park-River Forest.

Like boxing, styles make the game. Sometimes it's contrasting and sometimes dovetailing movements. Morton and Lane both prefer textbook movement, cutting and possession games.

Nationally ranked: Top-ranked Hinsdale Central and No. 2 St. Charles East have both been acknowledged in the national rankings of StudentSports. The Red Devils reached as high as No. 9, before its 1-1 draw with Naperville Central last week. Hinsdale Central checks in at No. 16 in the most recently posted rankings. St. Charles East is now the highest rated local school, at No. 14. Benet is now listed at No. 35.

The boys soccer season moves at its own inexorable forward momentum. Once the season starts, the days move quickly, the interesting matches accumulate and register one way or another and we are all left trying to interpret the data.

The screenwriter and savant William Goldman famously said of Hollywood, the first rule is that nobody knows anything. It was especially difficult to get a read, this year, on how things would shake during the regular season, much less the playoffs.

Making educated guesses is part of the fun.

Some teams, like Wheeling, 8-13 a year ago, come out of nowhere; others are what we most accurately call the "tried and true," a Benet, a Naperville Central, a Morton, all teams with great players, excellent coaching and an ingrained knowledge about how to get things done.

In the notebook this week, Wheeling was held up as a surprise team that emerges from the shadows. Last year midfielder Jose Garcia accounted for 67 percent of the Wildcats' offense, scoring 19 goals and adding 14 assists.

Garcia has hardly slowed down this year, already recording four goals and two assists in Wheeling's first six games (5-0-1). He has help. Forwards Ivan Mancilla (three goals, six assists) and Luis Herrera (three goals, two assists) are dangerous in their own right. Garcia's opposite number at midfielder, Frank Estrada, has also been a revelation, according to coach Ed Uhrik.

The result is a team that went from obscurity, a team without a great deal of aura to start the year, is now suddenly a top team to watch.

This is an interesting stretch to the year. The pieces have started to solidify for a number of teams, who are understanding new roles and learning with each game how everybody fits together. It is also tournament time. Like basketball, the tournaments are a marker, a way to examine how your own strengths and weaknesses contrast with other leading teams.

It truly is the eye of the beholder. It means everything, or very little, depending on the source.

The tournaments also reinforce the idea that the regular season matters. At least twice in the first two weeks of the season (and both games involving Lyons), a player or coach, speaking afterwards, has made the point of saying the intensity level and depth of feelling of both sides equaled that of a state tournament game.

We are barely out of August. It is still technically summer.

By the end of Saturday, Sept. 7, four or five major in-season tournaments are going to crown winners. Also, the Pepsi Showdown opens its first round of action, with all games at Lyons, marking a sharper delineation of the year, captured from the point of view of the leading participants.

Hinsdale Central senior forward Christian Meyer, this week's featured player, pointed out the Red Devils had not qualified for the championship of their tournament since 2004. Meyer made it fairly explicit the team felt overdue. Hinsdale Central survived a tough match against Downers South, a 1-1 draw, and reached the final.

The opponent is an old standby, No. 5 Morton. Mustangs' coach Mike Caruso pointed out just before the year started this team marks the final connection to the 2011 Class 3A state championship. Morton survived a very good Hersey team (like Wheeling, from the deep and loaded Mid-Suburban League) 1-0 to reach the final.

One of the other top weekend tournaments is a rematch from last year: Benet against Naperville Central meet for the second consecutive year to determine the Best of the West. Last year Naperville Central star Patrick Flynn blasted a free kick from close to 30 yards that powered the Redhawks to the 1-0 victory over the Redwings. Benet edged Naperville North 1-0 to qualify for a return to the final.

If you're a soccer fan, check the Saturday results page on, and make a point of checking out the winners of the Hinsdale Invite, the Barrington Classic, the Lemont Cup or the Best of the West.

The games are there for the taking. After the jousting on both sides, we are better able to extrapolate the larger meaning. More than anything, it just provides one more rationale for staying tuned and watching the game, very closely.

What you get is both heft and excitement.

The news that Waukegan has hired former Elmwood Park basketball coach Mike Wasielewskias its new boys basketball coach is significant on multiple levels. It is a signature and much coveted job for the the former Naperville North guard who played under the legendary Mark Lindo in the DuPage Valley Conference.

The hiring also carries dramatic consequences for the Public League soccer landscape. Wasilewski left his job as a history teacher and coach of Lane's powerhouse girls city program in accepting the teaching and coaching job at Waukegan.

Under Wasilewski, the Lane girls qualified for five consecutive city finals.

He was seconds away from winning four consecutive city titles. In the spring of 2012, Lane led Young 1-0 in the 80th minute when Young scored seconds before regulation ended. The Dolphins eventually won the match in overtime.

Otherwise, Wasielewski directed the Indians to city titles in three of the last four years and four overall. His final team beat Class 2A supersectional qualifier Payton 8-0, in the most lopsided final in the 19 year history of the girls' city title. They outscored the city tournament opposition by a combined 37-0.

Wasilewski said he is not "sure if I'll coach girls' soccer at Waukegan yet, basketball will certainly keep me busy."

Jasmin Carrera, a two-time first all area player and the second most prolific scorer in Public League history, is part of the first group of scholarship at UIC, which is starting a varsity program for the 2014 season. Her departure leaves a considerable void.

George Washington-recruit Sofia Pavon, Natalie Wade and Anastasia Niforos form the nucleus of an exceptional junior class that is likely to maintain the Indians' dominance for the next two years.

Wasielewski's hiring underlines a potentially crippling blow to the Public League, another example of the talent drain the city is suffering in the aftermath of the draconian budget cuts and teacher layoffs. Some of the city's most successful, and best known, coaches in a range of sports, have lost their jobs in the reorganization.

Young boys soccer coach Ian McCarthy said he was forced to cut back his own staff. He also had to move all of his home games to a makeshift field in front of the Young campus. "I can't justify paying Park District fees in this financial environment," he said. George Stavrakas, the softball equivalent of Wasielewski who won multiple city titles for the Indians, is also no longer coaching softball there.

It seems self-evident the long-term repercussions, especially in the niche sports, are going to be considerable.

Team of the week: Hinsdale Central began the year with great expectations. The No. 2 Red Devils have exceeded the early season hype by recording two highly impressive victories to start the 2013 season. Sam Johnson scored three goals, star forward Christian Meyer also tallied and TJ Schmidt added a goal in the Red Devils' 5-1 season-opening win over No. 20 Metea Valley.

On Saturday, Hinsdale Central shut down Tremper of Kenosha, 1-0, on a goal by sophomore Bryan Loebig, in the first three minutes of the match. It was his first varsity goal. Keepers Wes Bergevin and Ethan Gama alternated in the net for the Red Devils. "It was a strong defensive effort and combined with an equally effective attacking scheme that [kept] pressure on in the attacking half," Hinsdale Central coach Michael Wiggins said.

Hinsdale Central hosts its own invitational this week. The final is Saturday at 7 p.m.

Not every team is Warren. Yet, the beauty of all sports, is with the start of the new soccer season Monday, Aug. 26th, every team starts in the same place. The best separate themselves from the pack.

Warren, Hinsdale Central, Lyons, Libertyville and Morton are likely playing for a state championship; St. Viator is a top threat in Class 2A. For others, success is measured, winning a regional, taking conference, doing better than the previous year.

Here is a snapshot, of sorts, of programs outside the top 20 to start the year, and what they hope to achieve.

Lincoln-Way West finished 14-9-3 last year. Coach Jeff Theiss has seven returning starters, led by senior midfielder Ian McGrath, one of the state's top players. The coach also touted senior midfielders Kipp Pavlovich and Paul Miller, senior forwards Adam Webb and Franco Pettinato, senior defender Kevin Staniszewski and keeper Tony Prospero. "I feel our program this season has a quality mix of experienced varsity athletes along with technical and talented underclassmen who have the ability to succeed at the varsity level," Theiss said.

Geneva (7-8-3) a year features four returning starters. Coach Ryan Estabrook is excited about two junior newcomers, Jason Lagger and Dylan Lange.

Notre Dame has not been known for its soccer program, but that could change under coach Reggie Lara. He called last year's team "perhaps [Notre Dame's] most successful soccer team in school history." The Dons have seven returning starters. Their best players are senior midfielder Lucas Carlson, senior keeper Robbie Hill (nine shutouts last year) and sophomore defender Nate Adams. Lara also likes sophomore midfielder Jack Werner and junior defender Joe Hilger. "We're a young team that still has a lot of experience," Lara said. "Our strengths are our speed on offense and our discipline and physical toughness on defense."

Ridgewood finished state runner-up in Class 2A three years ago. Coach Robert St. John, behind senior Adam Yaghmour, is looking to make another run. "The [Metro Suburban] is tough with Glenbard South, Timothy Christian, Fenton, and Riverside Brookfield all bringing back quality teams," he said.

Glenbard South (9-7-3 last year) is led by Matt Patterson and Joey Gjata, according to coach Melissa Pero.

Oak Park-River Forest returns just three starters from last year's team that beat Morton in the state tournament. "We are going to be an extremely young team this year with only six players that have varsity experience," coach Paul Wright said.. "The majority of the team will be juniors." Watch senior midfielder Tim Huettel and junior defender Mavin Gill.

Curie is making the leap the Public League's top division, the Premier. Coach Leon Kim has one of the city's best players in three-year starter Eric Gonzalez. "This will be our first season where every team we play will be a challenge," Kim said.

Leyden, with Addison Trail, is the top threat to power Morton in the West Suburban Gold. The Eagles return six starters from a 15-7-2 team. Sophomore Albert Arabik is one of the state's top sophomores (he had 15 goals and four assists last year). "We lost three kids to academy, but we will be quite competitive," coach Mark Valintis said. 'We have a strong senior group that is experienced and talented. Will be young in the back and in goal."

Stagg returns five starters from a 12-7-2 team that lost to eventual third-place finisher Sandburg 1-0 in a regional final. The foundation is set with two star, senior midfielder Roberto Torres and junior keeper Erick Estrada.

Homewood-Flossmoor was just 4-18-3 last year. Coach Chris Reid has a simple goal: "Improve on last year's record." He has five starters back, led by Andrew Lwanga and talented newcomers Sam Spencer, Nick Wassilak and Jonathan Brandt.

Mundelein has three returning starters from a team that went 8-9-4 a year ago. Coach Ernie Billittier said his top returning players are: Eric Morales, Armando Gomez, Carlos Huaracha, Lino Garcia and Mason Homsey. The top newcomer are Hector Ruiz, Chuy Alba, Stephen Wald, PePe Gonzalez. "We have a young group that is enthusiastic and have a team-first approach to the season," he said.

Plainfield East features an elite player in senior forward Ryan Olans (19 goals a year ago), one of four starters from last year's 9-6-4 group. Others to watch are sophomore keeper Isaias Marquez and seniors Cristian Rodriguez and Cristian Valdez. This year's junior class was undefeated as sophomores.

Niles West struggled last year, going 3-13-3. Coach Scott Ackman is excited by the return of Robert Ljubic and two prized freshmen, keeper Carlos Lome and defender Kevin Sanchez.

Maine East has eight returning starters from a 12-8-1 team. Coach Vic DiPrizio said watch sophomore forward Matt Coronado, senior midfielder Dino Tijanic, senior defender Marco Marin and senior keeper David Patyk.

Plainfield North coach Jim O'Hara returns seven starters, led by star midfielder/forward Logan Wright and senior midfielder Tyler Petprachan and senior defender Garret Gathman. "I believe we have a great opportunity to be the best team in our school's young history," O'Hara said.

Plainfield South coach David Brown has seven returning starters from a team that went 13-8-3. "We brought up a lot of very skilled sophomores to the varsity team last year, so hopefully their experience of going through a complete varsity season, coupled with the assets our seniors bring to the table, will make for an exciting season," he said. "We have been in a regional final two of the last three years, now it is time to see if we can take the next step."

Nazareth coach Doug Hunt has one of the state's most prolific scorers in senior forward Chris Tovar (26 goals, nine assists in 2012). Also watch senior midfielder Mark Haraus (eight goals) and defender Sam Abed.

Alan Matan assumes the coaching job at Maine West, a strong program embroiled in a notorious hazing incident that undercut its 17-3-3 season. He has one of the state's top players, four-year starter Nelson Herrera, and Jonathan Schmitz as a foundation to build around. "With a new coaching staff and new philosophies, it will be a challenge to quickly develop chemistry," Matan said.

Plainfield Central has been the dominant program in the Southwest Prairie. Coach Kevin Fitzgerald has three returning starters. His top newcomer are sophomore midfielder Jarod Petrovic, sophomore midfielder Gustavo Sanchez, junior defender Gage Wuestenfeld and senior defender Tom Poznanski. "We have a nice mix of youth and experience, and we're still learning how to play together," he said. "The conference is wide open with the other Plainfields all expected to be pretty good. Oswego should
also contend."

Larkin has seven returning players from a sectional finalist that went 20-4-2. Senior defender Tito Valezguez is the team's star. Also watch two newcomers, keeper Leo Perez and transfer Gonsalo Garcia, according to coach Ken Hall.

Bloom was on the verge of cracking the top 20. The Blazing Trojans have five returning starters from a 19-3-1 group that romped undefeated through the Southland. Senior forward Juan Elizalde (19 goals) is the team's star.

Loyola returns six starters from a 15-6-2 regional finalist. Players to watch are Gil Maloul, Alex Lopez and keeper Konrad Kowal.

Wes Molyneaux takes over one of the state's signature programs at New Trier. He has four returning starters. "Kevin Sokal and Jack Cornelo are our top returning players from last year," he said. "Both played in the back for us last year but will be moving up to midfield this year." The Trevians also return two experienced keepers in Andrew Gjersten and J.J. Jaggard.

Addison Trail is another team right on the verge of making the top 20 with six returning starters from a 14-6-1 team of a year ago. In addition to three returning all-conference players, Angelo Amta, Trey Smith and Sergio Marin, the team welcomes back star midfielder Elias Leyva from a year playing club.
"Our strengths this year are team speed, quickness, and ability to put the ball in the net," coach Ryan Dini said.

Wheaton Warrenville South is the top threat to perennial powers Naperville Central and Naperville North in the DuPage Valley. The Tigers have one of the state's top backlines, led by star senior defender Joey Spera and Mike Stelletello. Offensively, watch out for junior midfielder Elliot Kettle, junior forward Jurguen Guzman and junior midfielder Ian Daniels.

In his second year at Neuqua Valley, Skip Begley has a solid nucleus with two gifted playmakers, senior forward Jake Loncar and junior forward Ryan Ross. Junior midfielder Xavi Ortiz is the team's other returning starter.

Rolling Meadows returns six starters from a developing team. Coach Peter Mikulak touts junior midfielder Brett Gibson, junior forwards David Zarate and Arthur Giedrojc and senior midfielder Mike D'Acquisto.

For boys soccer participants, their summer is over.

Formal practice began this week for the boys' fall campaign. The IHSA permits teams to begin playing games on Monday, Aug. 26th. The Sun-Times' boys soccer preview, spotlighting the top teams and players to watch, is going to be unveiled very soon.

What follows is a curio, if you will, a preview of the preview.

Of course, soccer, like most specialized sports, has become a nearly year-round affair. The available talent pool has also been dispersed through the rise and increasingly popularity of academy and club programs. A great unknown appears to govern this year. "In some cases, we won't know what kids are playing club until the start of [practice]," one coach said.

The incursion of club is something coaches have all dealt with and consequently braced for. The question of club or high school is one argued for another day. Approximately 30 players that were named to the all-state or all-section teams, selected by the Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association (IHSSCA), return this. A nearly similar amount of players named honorable mention also return.

As a quick refresher on how the 2012 year played out:

Warren defeated top-ranked Naperville Central 2-1 in overtime for the Class 3A state title. Sandburg defeated Stevenson in the third-place match. In Class 2A, Peoria Notre Dame won its second title in the last three years. St. Viator defeated Wheaton Academy for third-place.

The Blue Devils suffered significant graduation losses, especially its dynamic offensive personnel such as Daniel Szczepanek, Sean Kirwan, Auner Solis and Nick Wegrzynowicz. Even so, coach Jason Ahonen has built a formidable program designed for success over the long haul, and his team is going for the hat trick: three successive Final Four appearances.

"While our team will look very different on offense with the graduation of 4 offensive starters, we feel that we have players that are ready to fill those voids," Ahonen said.

The conferences to watch are, again, the two North Suburban leagues, both divisions of the West Suburban (pay special attention to the Silver), DuPage Valley, the two sections of the Central Suburban and the East Suburban Catholic Conference.

The West Suburban Silver could have four or five teams in the Sun-Times' top 20 throughout the season. Hinsdale Central edged Lyons for the title last year. Oak Park-River Forest is always dangerous. Glenbard West and a resurgent Downers Grove North are also teams to watch. "The West Suburban will again rate as one of the strongest conferences in Chicagoland from top to bottom, and the Silver Division will be incredibly difficult," Hinsdale Central coach Michael Wiggins said.

Some big coaching changes are also worth watching. The most interesting is at perennial power Naperville North. Steve Goletz, who has orchestrated back-to-back Class 3A state title for the Huskies' girls program, glides into the boys head coaching job, taking over for his mentor, Jim Konrad, who is the school's Athletic Director. Naperville North and Naperville Central are again the teams to beat in the DuPage Valley.

Here is a comprehensive list of the defending conference champions:

Big Northern East: Burlington Central
Central Suburban North: Highland Park and Maine West
Central Suburban South: Waukegan
Catholic Blue: Fenwick and Saint Ignatius
Catholic White: St. Laurence
DuPage Valley: Naperville Central and Naperville North
East Suburban Catholic: Benet
Fox Valley Fox: Johnsburg
Fox Valley Valley: Cary-Grove
Metro Suburban: Riverside-Brookfield
Mid-Suburban Cup (West): Palatine
Mid-Suburban East: Buffalo Grove
North Suburban Cup (Lake): Libertyville
North Suburban Prairie: Round Lake
Southland: Bloom Township
South Suburban Blue: Bremen
South Suburban Red: Eisenhower
Southwest Prairie: Plainfield Central
SouthWest Suburban Blue: Lincoln-Way East
SouthWest Suburban Red: Stagg and Thornton co-op
Suburban Christian: Wheaton Academy
Upstate Eight Cup (River): St. Charles East
Upstate Eight Valley: East Aurora, Lake Park and Neuqua Valley
West Suburban Gold: Morton
West Suburban Silver: Hinsdale Central

Some Chicago high school and club soccer stars made a spectacular statement on a national stage.

As detailed in the Aug. 3rd print edition of the Sun-Times, Naperville North graduate Zoe Swift punctuated her remarkable career with yet another astounding achievement. She scored two goals, including the game-winner in the 110th minute, as the Aurora-based Team Chicago Academy-Botafogo captured the women's U18 US national championship last Sunday afternoon in Overland Park, Kansas.

Projections and comparisons are not always fair, much less accurate, but it seems valid to infer from the results that Chicago soccer stood apart from the crowd this year. The bulk of the 19 players on Team Chicago are from the western suburbs. Sixteen of those players graduated this year. It was a ridiculously stacked lineup.

Five players on the team were Sun-Times first-team All-area performers: Swift, Plainfield North's Ashley Handwork, Neuqua Valley's Gianna Dal Pozzo, Carmel's Meegan Johnston and Waubonsie Valley's Rachele Armand. Three other players on the team made either the second or third team.

Credit Phil Nielsen, the Elite Academy Director who coached the team. At the national level, teams tend to play year-round. He took a group of disparate players, even though many were teammates and played against each other and, and molded them in just a couple of months.

"The ability to have chemistry on the field after three or four months apart comes down to a couple of things," Nielsen wrote from Denmark, where he took a group of his younger players for a tournament.

"Firstly, that we have a very clear playing concept that all the players understand and have bought into. Secondly, that the players are very talented and very serious players, so they can execute the game-plan pretty easily. They are fit and they have a great soccer-intelligence to go with their great technical abilities."

The Northfield-based FC United Select went 1-2 in its pool play. They played a crucial role in sharpening Team Chicago's resolve and determination after they surprised Botafogo in the Illinois State Cup final 2-1 in June.

"That was a wake up call," Dal Pozzo said. "Our coaches got on us, about our attitude and intensity, and said we couldn't expect to just go out there and play and win. In the last month, we really put in the time and the effort to develop team chemistry and play at a higher level."

Impressively, several of the players toggled back and forth from their summer college workouts and summer school schedules to play in the tournament. The emotional victory was deeply satisfying. "It was a great way to end our high school career," Handwork said.

The members of the national title team are, alphabetically listed, with their high schools in parenthesis:

Rachele Armand (Waubonsie Valley), Bryce Banuelos (York), Katie Ciesiulka (Neuqua Valley rising senior), Hope D'Addario (Neuqua Valley), Gianna Dal Pozzo (Neuqua Valley), Karla DiJohn (Waubonsie Valley), Megan Geldernick (Metea Valley), Ashley Handwork (Plainfield North), Heather Handwork (Plainfield North rising senior), Alexis Jakuszewski (Wheaton Warren South rising junior), Kaitlin Johnson (Rosary), Meegan Johston (Carmel), Brooke Ksiazek (Neuqua Valley), Dana Miller (Wheaton Warrenville South), Molly Piech (Rosary), Danielle Pitaro (Glenbard South), Jenna Romano (Waubonsie Valley), Zoe Swift (Naperville North) and Kendall Wilde (Waubonsie Valley)

Team Chicago was not the only team to make a statement. FC United Select finished last in its pool, but they had just a negative-1 goal differential in the three games, underlying how close they were. Graduated Rockford Boylan star Abby Reed (Indiana State) tied Swift with three goals for top individual goal scorers, even though she played one fewer game.

The Naperville-based NSA Jaguars, led by Naperville North standout rising junior Abbie Boswell, finished 0-2-1 in the U16 nationals.

In the U15 bracket, Oak Brook-based Eclipse Elite Black 97/98 defeated the Cleveland-program Ambassadors FC 4-1 in overtime to capture the national crown. Zoe Redei and Alissa Gorzak scored two goals apiece. Redei's first goal, in the 73rd minute, forced overtime. Don't expect to see this gifted group at the high school level. The team's entire roster plays for Eclipse exclusively.

On the men's side, in the U18 finals, the Lemont-based powerhouse Raiders FC Premier lost a 2-1 heartbreaker on penalty kicks against California-based West Coast FC. The Raiders dominated the title match, registering a nearly 4-1 advantage (22-6) on shots and a greater than 2-1 edge (8-3) in shots on goal. The Raiders recorded the most points and generated the greatest goal differential of the eight teams playing in the nationals.

Former Mather star Qudus Lawal, who led the Rangers to the 2011 Class 2A state championship, was a standout for the Raiders, as was Proviso East's graduated star Alexis Monteon. Playing in the same pool as the Raiders, the Naperville-based Galaxy finished 0-2-1. Graduated Naperville Central star Patrick Flynn, the Sun-Times Player of the Year who's about to launch his college career at DePaul, had three goals in the tournament, tied with Monteon for second highest.