WOODSTOCK – Crystal Lake Central sophomore forward Emma Bolanowski stood on the sideline holding the Class 2A Woodstock North Girls Soccer Regional plaque after her team's 3-1 victory over Kaneland on Friday, then gleefully shouted to her teammates.
"I don't ever wanna let this go!" Bolanowski said while clutching the plaque close to her chest with both hands.
Thanks in part to Bolanowski's two-goal effort, the top-seeded Tigers captured their first regional championship since 2009, and their second in program history. That drought became a motivational tool for the team.
"We've got this sign in our gym that shows all the accomplishments from all sports," Bolanowski said. "And our sport has about the least number of things next to it. So we really wanted to kind of just prove ourselves."
The Tigers (17-3) struck first about 17 minutes into the match, when senior Taylor Bittenbender's long, left-footed blast from about 30 yards away seemed to catch Kaneland goalkeeper Emma Ball off guard. The ball kept gaining elevation as it hooked right to left toward the upper left corner of the goal and over the outstretched arms of Ball.
"The girls are playing with a lot of confidence right now, and to get that first goal was huge for us," Tigers coach Sarah Fack said.
With 5:21 left in the first half, junior Grace Anderson drew a foul only feet from the Kaneland goal. Bolanowski converted the ensuing penalty kick which also was toward the upper left part of the goal, making it 2-0 Central.
But Kaneland, a No. 4 seed, refused to give in and stepped up its offensive pressure as the game went on. Five minutes into the second half, Knights senior Grace Purcell beat Tigers goalkeeper Nora Ryan low to the right side of the goal, cutting Central's advantage to 2-1.
"After halftime, I thought we adjusted nicely," Kaneland coach Scott Parillo said. "Early on, we were standing around spectating a little too much and letting the play come to us rather than taking it to them."
After being outshot, 5-3, in the first half, the Knights returned the favor, outshooting the Tigers, 7-3, the remainder of the match. But it wasn't enough, as Bolanowski scored again for Central with five seconds left in the contest, when she headed Grace Rokos' centering pass in, capping the scoring.
It was Bolanowski's fourth goal in her past two games. But it wasn't only Central's offense that was clicking. Defensively, the back line of Ellie Montford, Abbey Kramer, Kennedy Kruse, Madeline Anderson – and others – limited the quality of Kaneland's opportunities.
"Our goal was to push the ball to the perimeter so they wouldn't have any easy shots at Nora in goal," Montford said. "Collectively, we did a really solid job of accomplishing that goal."
The Tigers will face Boylan in a Hampshire Sectional semifinal at 5 p.m. Tuesday. They didn't face each other during the regular season.
"We're really looking forward to the challenge," Central senior Megan Woznaik said. "I think this team is capable of going pretty far if we continue to work as a group and give it our all. We're having a lot of fun out there."
STAR OF THE GAME
Emma Bolanowski, Crystal Lake Central, so., F
Bolanowski scored her third and fourth goals in two games this postseason to help the Tigers win their first regional title since 2009.
17: Wins this season for the Tigers, a program record
AND ANOTHER THING ...
After playing only club soccer before this season, Central senior Megan Wozniak decided to join the Tigers this spring. "This moment here makes it all worthwhile," Wozniak said.
Crystal Lake Central 3, Kaneland 1
Kaneland 0 1 --- 1
Crystal Lake Central 2 1 --- 3
CLC-Bittenbender, 18th minute
CLC-Bolanowski (Penalty kick), 35th minute
K-Purcell, 46th minute
CLC-Bolanowski (Rokos assist), 89th minute
Crystal Lake Central: Ryan (10 shots, 9 saves). Kaneland: Ball (9 shots, 6 saves). Red/yellow cards: None.