NAPERVILLE — Defensive-minded coaches with defense-oriented girls soccer teams will collide when Normal West High School and Arlington Heights St. Viator meet in Friday's 1 p.m. Class 2A state semifinal at North Central College.
The winner plays for the title at 1 p.m. Saturday against the victor of Friday's 11 a.m. semifinal pitting Lemont (24-1) against Wheaton St. Francis (16-4-3). Friday's losers play for third at 11 a.m. Saturday.
"I know the kind of style that they play," said West coach Val Walker, whose team averages 4.0 goals per game. "They are not a high-scoring team (at 2.6 goals per game). They are solid defensively. They have good keeping."
St. Viator goalie Anna Johnston has signed with New Hampshire.
"She's the best we've ever had," said Bulldogs coach Mike Taylor, who has started Johnston for four years.
This year, she helped the Bulldogs notch 16 shutouts while allowing 14 goals in 24 games.
"The players in front of her have so much confidence because they know if they possibly make a slip," Taylor said, "they know she's good enough to make the stop."
St. Viator is making its eighth state trip and first since topping University High, 4-1, for third in 2012. The Bulldogs won the 2002 state crown over U High, 5-1, and came back for titles in 2003 and 2005.
A year ago, St. Viator went 9-8-2 and lost in a sectional semifinal, 1-0, to Crystal Lake Prairie Ridge.
"We played a helluva game, but that was a young team with three seniors," Taylor said.
"Ever since last May, we've been meeting once a month to go bowling, go to the movies ... we had a Christmas party ... just doing stuff together. It was just about building the team bond closer."
That bond grew as the season progressed. Now the Bulldogs have won nine straight.
A turning point came in the Adidas Tournament of Champions at Burlington, Iowa, where St. Viator beat Class 1A state champion Quincy Notre Dame, 1-0, but lost to Peoria Notre Dame, 1-0, and lost to Final Four qualifier Lemont, 1-0. West beat Peoria Notre Dame, 2-0.
The Bulldogs' other losses came against Hoffman Estates Conant, Libertyville and Wauconda. They avenged the Wauconda loss in the sectional final.
"It's been a good run," said Taylor, whose team played five foes who made the Sweet 16. "I believe in playing a good schedule so that by the time you get to the playoffs, you've seen everything."
St. Viator's top scorers are senior Brinley McVeigh with 19 goals and junior Payton McDonnell with 15.
"(McVeigh) takes what she gets," Taylor said. "She's a defensive midfielder we converted to a forward halfway through the season. She's just a hard-nosed player.
"(McDonnell) is an unsung hero in the midfield. She does nothing fancy. She just does her job."
West is led by Audrey Marsaglia (22 goals) and all-stater Jess Hieb (17 goals, 12 assists). Keeper Bekah Nielsen has helped the Wildcats post 14 shutouts while allowing 17 goals in 25 games. She has 143 saves.
"I knew this team would be able to make it to state, and I'm just so excited," Nielsen said. "I don't think it's hit me yet, all the excitement, but when I get there and get on the field, it's going to be surreal."
State games are played on artificial turf, a surface the Wildcats have played on six times.
"We are a grass team," notes Walker, whose squad practiced on artificial turf at Illinois Wesleyan on Wednesday and Thursday.
West senior midfielder-forward Olivia Peters said, "We prefer grass because it's our home field. I know some of our kickers, like Jess Hieb and people that take the corners, prefer (grass) because it gives more loft to the ball on free kicks. That's the only major thing about Astroturf that bothers us.
"The turf is faster so the ball runs out of bounds, but for our team that is actually an advantage because our forwards like Audrey are just so fast. It's speed we haven't seen matched yet this season. I think it works to our advantage to be on Astroturf even though it's not what we're used to."