NORMAL — The soccer education of Val Walker is ongoing.
"I live and breathe the sport," says the Normal West High School coach, who watches televised games from all over the world every chance he gets.
Unlike casual fans, Walker looks for tactics that could help his girls and boys.
Walker's discoveries have helped his 20-5-3 girls squad advance to Friday's 1 p.m. Class 2A state semifinal against Arlington Heights St. Viator (17-5-2) at North Central College in Naperville.
Friday's 11 a.m. semifinal pits Lemont (24-1) against Wheaton St. Francis (16-4-3). Friday's losers play for third at 11 a.m. Saturday while the winners meet for the title at 1 p.m.
Among Walker's borrowed strategies is zone defense on corner kicks from Arsenal of the Premier League and a 3-5-2 alignment from Chelsea.
"That (3-5-2) is a system that is in right now," he says. "You try to adopt a style that fits the personnel in your program."
Senior midfielder-forward Olivia Peters doesn't mind the tactical tinkering.
"When we changed to a new formation at the beginning of this year, he highlighted teams in the pros that play that formation," said Peters, who has 12 goals and 10 assists.
"He wanted us to watch them. It's helpful to us to see it done perfectly so that we can try to implement it."
Junior defender-midfielder Rylee Billington said Tuesday's 2-0 super-sectional win over Waterloo was a good example of Walker's planning paying off.
"Sometimes we don't see the whole picture just because he has so much more soccer knowledge than us," she said. "His scouting job last night was phenomenal."
Some of West's tactics become more successful because they are so rarely seen by opponents.
"It might catch them off guard," said junior Audrey Marsaglia, who has a team-high 22 goals. "It's just something different that they need to adjust to. In that time that they are adjusting, we're able to attack and pull ourselves together."
In general, Walker wants his teams focused on defending and possessing.
"We want to defend with a lot of numbers behind the ball and we're going to possess (and) transition to attack," he said.
That formula has brought Normal West its fourth state trip in school history and third trip for Walker, who is 212-55-20 in 11 years as coach.
Even though only two of his 11 starters are seniors and the rest juniors, Walker doesn't feel this team is a year ahead of schedule in terms of achievement.
"I think we're right on schedule," he said. "Last year we were there (physically), but mentally we weren't as mature as we should have been."
Last year's 20-5-1 squad, which lost 3-0 in the Sweet 16 to Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, had expectations so high, they did more harm than good.
Walker well remembers last year's season opener.
"We beat Dunlap, a very good team, but we didn't play exceptionally well," he said. "Instead of celebrating a (3-1) victory over a good team, we were mad after the game that 'we can't win state if we play like this.'
"That created a situation that was too stressful. We were looking too long term instead of enjoying the little things one moment at a time. We were too bent on the big picture and we kind of burned ourselves out."
Peters remembers last season as being hard.
"That last game, it didn't feel like it should have been a loss," she said. "As it was ending, it was a little heartbreaking because we knew we had the potential to go farther.
"I think that happens to a lot of teams. I think that happened to Normal Community this year. They could have won state if things had played out differently for them."
This year, the Wildcats' more relaxed attitude has resulted in a Big 12 Conference title and an on-going 10-game winning streak.
Walker feels the Wildcats started to believe in themselves when they knocked off perennial powerhouse Peoria Notre Dame, 2-0, on April 17.
"They finally agreed with me that 'you're really good,'" said the coach, who gets to watch more soccer now that school is out.
Celebrations planned: Fans can join a send-off for the Wildcats in front of the school at 4:45 p.m. Thursday. Another celebration will be held in the cafeteria at 1 p.m. Sunday.