The in-season, specially curated invitational has become the soccer equivalent of the holiday tournaments that produce so much excitement during the basketball season. For the girls' soccer enthusiast, April is not, in poet T.S. Eliot's famous formation, the "cruelest month," but rather its opposite, a virtual nirvana.
The month is shaped by two big-time tournaments, hybrid events that pull from many of the same teams. In basketball teams, it is as though Pontiac and Proviso West cross-pollinated.
First-round games of the Pepsi Showdown start Tuesday. Two city teams figure prominently in the early intrigue. If Payton gets by Plainfield East in a qualifying game, the Grizzlies and star forward Corinne Harris must confront top-seed Metea Valley.
The Mustangs are coming off the biggest win in its program's history, a scintillating 4-3 victory over nationally-rated and previous No. 3 Neuqua Valley on Wednesday, sparked by Kristina Tomaras's two goals and assist.
(The Mustangs survived a gauntlet that featured games against highly-regarded York and Waubonsie Valley.)
Without looking too far ahead, North Shore rivals New Trier and Loyola, currently ranked number 5 and 6 respectively, in the Sun-Times' poll, are staring down at a showdown in next Saturday's quarterfinals, if the seeds hold out.
That's at the top of the bracket.
In the lower bracket, the most interesting first-round match up appears to be Lane, with Payton the favorite for the city crown, traveling to the (far too lower) 15h-th seeded Lyons. The Lions, the tournament defending runner-up, are coming off back-to-back impressive wins over Lincoln-Way North and nemesis York. They have a great keeper in Maggie Orlowski and a dangerous and quickly improving offensive attack. Their only blemish is their undefeated start is a tie with Waubonsie Valley.
The quarterfinals are Saturday, April 14 at Schaumburg's Olympic Park.
The other significant tournament is the 24-team Naperville Invitational that boats a staggering line up including nine teams currently ranked by the Sun-Times. The current top two ranked programs, Naperville North and Conant, headline the field.
The format has eight three-team pools that begins April 19th at Naperville Central, Naperville North, Barrington and Wheaton North.
In addition to stacked programs such as Naperville North, Conant, Naperville Central and New Trier, the invitational features the wild card of Rockford Boylan. Behind junior forward Abby Reed, an Indiana State-recruit, the Titans blitzed the field at the Huntley tournament last month. Their presence certainly diversifies the field.
The eight pool winners make up the quarterfinalists. The championship bracket tips on April 26th at a site to be determined. The semifinals and championship are set for Naperville Central on Friday and Saturday, April 27th and April 28th.
Back to work: many Public League teams elected not to play during their spring break. That break is officially over after Easter Sunday, and some excellent games are on tap. The most exciting is Wednesday at Lane Stadium, where two-time defending champion Lane hosts Harris and the rest of the Grizzlies from Payton. The other wildcard of course is Young. Rachel Hobart is probably the best keeper in the city, and she ensures the Dolphins are always going to hang around. Lane and Young, who played in last year's city final, are scheduled to play April 18th.
Finally, Bogan won the Amundsen Cup earlier this week behind the strong play of Bianca Soto. She scored five goals in two games as the Bengals beat the hosts in the preliminary round and smothered Schurz 5-0 in the title game. Not surprisingly, Soto was named the most valuable player for her accomplishments.