It's never easy to reclaim championships year in and year out, but the Cyclones have found that perfect mixture to build a winning program. For the fourth straight year, the women's soccer team earned the NJCAA Region IV championship, and for the fourth time it was over rival Waubonsee Community College.
The Cyclones have continued their reign in the region and Illinois Skyway Collegiate Conference, posting an unblemished record for four years, aside from one tie this season. This latest win came on their home field and looked similar to last year's matchup.
The two teams faced each other this afternoon under damp and windy conditions, nothing they haven't faced before. The Chiefs were gunning for the Cyclones, who started the game playing not to lose. "In the first half we never played as good as we could. We played desperate, more chasing the ball. I told them Waubonsee would come with energy, and we couldn't give up bad goals. We needed to score first, and we did," said head Coach Al Palar, who was named Region Coach of the Year.
Veronika Stafira cleared a shot past the Chiefs keeper, bringing some relief to her team as they went up first. Minutes before Karen Montoya scored the second goal, she was grappling with her lack of headers. A perfect pass allowed her to head one in for the 2-0 lead going into halftime. The Chiefs had a few close shots, however, keeper Maribel Carmona kept the ball in her sights.
"At halftime I talked with the team about making sure we matched the intensity because their season was on the line. We were controlled and everyone was attacking," Palar said.
He also emphasized the need to add another goal before the Chiefs got on the board, knowing they would eventually score as they have this season and in the past few region finals. If the Chiefs had cut the Cyclones' lead to 2-1, Palar said that would have changed the game entirely. Fortunately, Yesenia Perez played the ball to Brooke Janeczek who slid one in the net to make it 3-0. The Chiefs countered within minutes, finally netting a goal of their own. What really gave Palar confidence that this game was over was a fourth and final goal from Perez.
After the Cyclones went up 4-1, the intensity of the game yielded a few yellow cards and an injury that took Carmona out of the game. Patricia Rzadkosz, normally a midfielder, filled in, making a big save in the process.
"I knew we'd hang on, and I'm glad we got the goals," Palar said. "This was the most relaxed I've felt going into a final. I knew as long as we didn't do anything silly or stupid that we'd win. It was an awesome performance."
"Being a regional championship team is just something you can't even express in words. Coach Al wrote us a little message in the locker room, and something that really stuck out to me was, 'I absolutely promise you that you'll never forget the feelings/emotions you'll feel when the game ends.' He was absolutely right. Celebrating something that you've worked so hard for was unbelievable, and it'll be with me forever," said freshman Mairead Ruane. "We got the win because we had some excellent set-piece goals and obviously a great individual effort from Brooke. It's so great to see players up top just running so hard because you can have all the talent in the world, but if you don't work hard it's not worth anything."
Following the game, Palar was honored as Coach of the Year and Ruane was named Region IV MVP. She had two assists in this victory, but has scored six goals in the last three games. Overall this season, she's amassed 17 goals and six assists. Even without those numbers, Palar called her a game changer. "She deserved this. She was the best out there and changed the game. It's nice knowing we have her on the field along with Brooke and Veronika. I feel confident with those players out there," he said.
Although she was singled out with the honor, Ruane shared praise with her counterparts. "Being given the MVP was definitely unexpected because our team is filled with such talented players who just work so hard," she said. "It's definitely a good honor. I want to give all props to my teammates, who set me up for success constantly."
In the past, the region champ would qualify for the national tournament. However, a rule change this year required the champions to play an in-district game. The Cyclones will face the No. 12-ranked Monroe Community College Tribunes from New York, on Saturday, Nov. 3, noon, at home. The Cyclones, ranked 16th nationally, have their work cut out for them.
"It'll be tough, and we'll be the underdogs, but I think if we defend really well, we can steal a goal or two. Monroe can score, and we have to hold them to a goal or two to have a chance. But we have the advantage being at home. It's going to be a really good game," he said.