NAPERVILLE — There wasn’t much difference between the Normal West High School girls soccer team and its opponents in the Class 2A state tournament.
The Wildcats ended regulation play in Saturday’s third-place game in a 0-0 tie with Lemont, which went on to prevail in five rounds of penalty kicks, 4-3, to earn a 1-0 victory.
On Friday, West fell to St. Viator, 1-0, on a free kick that was awarded under questionable circumstances in the eyes of Wildcat fans. St. Viator lost Saturday’s final to Wheaton St. Francis, 4-0.
“No regrets here,” said West coach Val Walker. “We gave up one goal (in 160 minutes). We competed all weekend. I’m so happy for our girls and how the season unfolded. To put things in perspective, this is a great weekend for us.”
The four-time state qualifying Wildcats, who were second in 2014 and third in 2008, ended their marathon 30-game season at 20-7-3 while six-time trophy winner Lemont, fourth a year ago, moved to 25-2.
“I’ve always said that penalty kicks are a crap shoot,” Walker said. “Some days you make them all and some days you don’t. We have to be OK with that.”
The Indians seemed on the way to winning in regulation when Mairead Ruane took a penalty kick with 18:28 left. However, Wildcat keeper Bekah Nielsen dove left to stop it.
“We can always depend on Bek to do some crazy good stuff and she did there,” said Walker, whose team was outshot, 7-2. “She’s one of the MVPs on this team and she showed that again.”
Nielsen dug deep and found willpower.
“I was really wanting to stop it and that’s all that was going through my head,” she said.
“I’m just super proud of how our team played. In penalty kicks, somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. Sadly, we had to lose today.”
Due to time constraints ahead of the 1 p.m. title game, the third-place contest went directly to penalty kicks without the standard two 10-minute overtime periods.
Lemont, which had 19 shutouts this season, shot first in the penalty kick round and Ruane scored to the left. Olivia Peters, one of West’s four seniors, answered with a blast to the right.
Nielsen then had Niamh Hehir’s shot come right to her before Rylee Billington gave West a 2-1 lead. Lemont’s Katie Knutte connected to open round three, but West’s scoring leader with 22 goals, Audrey Marsaglia, missed wide right.
In the fourth round, Lemont’s left-footed Jacqueline Aleman scored, but Sarah Hodgen tied it for West into the lower left corner. The final round saw Lemont’s Danielle Irwin score before Wildcat all-stater Jess Hieb had her mind read by goalie Michelle Jerantowski, who punched the offering away to end the game.
“You just pick a side and go for it,” Jerantowski said. “If you get it right, you get it right. My strategy is — don’t catch it, just punch it out because last year I tried catching it and it went through my hands.”
Afterwards, Walker gave Hieb a word-less hug.
“Jess is one of our warriors,” he said. “She makes those 99 percent of the time. The keeper guessed right and she came up with a good save. Jess put it on frame. That’s what you want.”
Lemont coach Rick Prangen said both teams looked tired the second half after playing on back-to-back days.
“It was two evenly matched teams,” he said. “It was mental toughness at that point. I credit the girls for seeing it through.”
With nine starters returning next year, the Wildcats will continue to have a target on their backs and Walker will remain focused on a journey of many steps instead of the 2019 state title.
“We’ll get ready for tryouts the end of February,” he said. “We’ll get ready for Glenbrook South in the middle of March … get ready for Dunlap a week later. That’s how it’s going to be.”
Sunday celebration: The Wildcats will be honored at a public reception at 1 p.m. Sunday in the school cafeteria.