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.