Second place is still pretty good

Tom Batters
Vince Cicciarelli

NAPERVILLE — Peoria Notre Dame, the defending Class 2A soccer champions, lost to Arlington Heights St. Viator, 1-0, Saturday in the championship game, ending up with a second-place trophy instead of another title, which these players and coaches coveted since the start of the season.

But, this was not a “let-down” or a “disappointment,” as I have heard some people suggest.

I realize that the Notre Dame players and coaches were not satisfied with second place, and they are probably still aching over the loss to St. Viator, but second in the state is still quite an accomplishment, especially for a team that returned just three seniors from a year ago.

In fact, you could say that the Irish over-achieved this season. They certainly did not under-achieve.

Be honest. How many of you thought they would even make it back to the championship game?

They lost their entire back line, and a few of their trusted goal scorers, including Dominic Bonello, who was the heart and soul of last year’s state championship team.

So, Notre Dame fans, instead of shaking your heads and saying, “too bad they couldn’t win that last one,” you should congratulate coach Mike Bare and his players for making another trip to the state finals.

This may sound a bit “rah-rah” for some tastes. I am not trying to be a cheerleader, though. I’m just trying to emphasize this important point: It is very difficult to win a state soccer championship. Notre Dame deserves a lot of credit for making it to the final game two years in a row.

Not many other schools have done that.

Now, let’s look ahead to next year.

I am not going to place Notre Dame back in the Final Four (especially since I just said how difficult it is to make it back there), but I will say that the Irish are going to be a definite contender again next year.

Michael Schrader, Jeff Cassidy and Jon Andersh are the only three seniors on this year’s team. Everyone else will be back.

Schrader, the team captain and one of the leading scorers; Cassidy, a much-improved goal scorer; and Andersh, the solid goalkeeper, will be missed, but the Irish have plenty of talent returning.

Juniors Cody Gilfillan and Vince Cicciarelli, who accounted for four of the goals against Freeport on Friday, are one of the most potent one-two punches in high school soccer.

“We’ve known each other for what seems like forever,” said Cicciarelli. “We used to come up here (to Naperville) and watch our brothers play. I look for Cody and he looks for me, and we can usually make something happen.”

Junior Kevin Whalen, who went on a scoring spree over the past few weeks, gives ND another legitimate threat up front.

“Kevin gained a lot of confidence and became one of our best players in the second half of the season,” Bare said. “We like what we’ve seen from him.”

Alex Garcia, a freshman, scored against Freeport to continue his sold second half as well.

The entire back line (Drew Olehy, Brett Lane, Josh Swank, Brad Lazzari, Matthew Buck) will return next year, too.

These are the guys who don’t always get the glamour, but, without them, the Irish would not have been in Naperville for the weekend.

“Those guys stepped up all year,” Andersh said. “They were so young, but they played like seniors.”

Bare called Olehy his “X-factor.”

“He’s one of those guys who just gets the job done, no matter what we ask him to do,” Bare said. “He hits all of our set pieces around midfield, and he has one of the best shots I’ve seen, so we give him shot opportunities from the back.”

Lane is a hard-nosed player (he missed the semifinal game after receiving a red card in the Super-sectional win over Lemont) who has a knack for winning balls in the air.

Lazzari, Buck and Swank are solid defenders who can handle the ball and make an aggressive run toward midfield if the opportunity is there.

By the time November comes around, Bare said he doesn’t care what class is listed nest to each player’s name.

“We had a lot of juniors and a few sophomores and freshmen, too, but it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “Our expectations are the same. We want to win a state title. If we’re younger than other teams, that doesn’t change our main goal.”

Next year, those younger players will be a year older. The trip to the state finals along with the brutal regular season schedule gave them a lot more experience than most underclassmen get.

So, even though the Irish came in second, there is no reason to sulk.

The future of Notre Dame soccer is bright — as always.