The championship of the Pepsi Showdown final Sunday at Toyota Park in Bridgeview certainly warrants the hype: two undefeated teams, ranked respectively No. 2 and No. 3 in our current rankings and looking to sustain their own momentum.
One other prominent subplot is the individual showdown between arguably the two most impressive individual performers of the year who are the top contenders for Player of the Year honors with Loyola's Corey Burns. Plainfield North senior forward Ashley Handwork and Buffalo Grove junior midfielder Kelli Zickert have been exceptional.
The Marquette-bound Handwork is taller and more athletic. Zickert is one of those unaccountable players that just thrives under any circumstances through moxie, innate skills and feel for the game. By her own admission, she's "not big or fast," but few teams seem capable of getting in front of her or stopping her.
(Interestingly, both have sisters who play important roles: Handwork's younger sister Heather is another big, slashing player. Zickert's identical twin sister Colleen plays opposite Kelli in the middle of the Bison attack.)
Plainfield North is 12-0 and Buffalo Grove 14-0-1. Plainfield North has played a slightly tougher schedule, and they own victories over the following teams currently ranked in the Sun-Times' top 20: Naperville Central, Sandburg, Hersey (twice) and Hinsdale Central. Buffalo Grove has beaten Hersey, New Trier and Barrington. They tied Batavia 1-1.
Sophomore Buffalo Grove keeper Sarah O'Connor has posted eight shutouts. Senior Erin Wren and Emma Veselsky have combined time in the net in posting 10 shutouts for the Tigers.
Win or lose, Plainfield North has little time to recuperate. The Tigers host No. 4 St. Charles North on Monday afternoon. (That game has since been rescheduled and is now not being played Monday.)
Naperville Invite championship bracket set
After a whirlwind, double-bracket day necessitated by Thursday's round of postponements, the 21st Naperville Invite championship bracket has been determined. It's a knockout.
Six of the eight quarterfinalists are ranked, led by top-ranked and defending Class 3A state champion Naperville North. The Huskies host surprise quarterfinalist Geneva Thursday at 7. With star senior forward Zoe Swift back after missing seven games, the Huskies throttled No. 20 Metea Valley in a nonconference showdown Tuesday and then beat Lincoln-Way Central and No. 13 Sandburg. Naperville North has revenge on its mind. Their only loss last year occurred to city rival Naperville Central in the championship game in a penalty kick shootout.
In the top-bracket, Barrington hosts No. 5 Loyola at 7. The Fillies have their momentum back after a rough patch. Coach Ryan Stengren was visibly frustrated after Barrington's 2-1 road loss to Buffalo Grove on Monday night. "I'm tired of seeing us dominate games for the first 25 minutes and have nothing come of it," he said. Barrington posted two impressive victories in pool play, shutting out Evanston and clipping No. 15 St. Charles East. With the Burns' sisters, senior Corey and freshman scorer Devin Burns, Loyola is capable of beating any team in the state.
In a rematch from last year's quarterfinal round, defending champion Naperville Central hosts No. 7 New Trier. The Redhawks survived an overtime thriller with Palatine and edged Downers South. New Trier ousted No. 18 Benet and No. 14 Lyons.
The second game of the Naperville Central doubleheader features No. 8 Neuqua Valley against No. 12 Hinsdale Central. The Red Devils' only loss was 1-0 to No. 2 Plainfield North. They return 11 starters from last year's sectional finalist.
The semifinals, at 5 and 7 p.m., on Friday, and the Saturday noon championship, are both at Naperville Central.