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Illinois Fusion takes stock after taking 2nd in Presidents Cup

Illinois Fusion takes stock after taking 2nd in Presidents Cup

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The sting of defeat doesn't get much worse than what the Illinois Fusion 00 Girls Premier soccer team experienced in Florida on Sunday.

Playing for a national championship in 90-plus-degree heat, the Bloomington-Normal-based squad battled a California crew to a 1-1 draw during 90 minutes of regulation, which was followed by a scoreless pair of 15-minute overtime periods.

Then came nine penalty kick shots before the Fusion lost in sudden death.

By the time they returned home, however, the enormity of finishing second in the National Presidents Cup — a series that began with more than 1,000 entrants 11 months earlier — was starting to sink in.

"Most people don't get the opportunity to play for a national championship at any level in any sport," said Coach Brandon Menke, whose 26-3-7 squad outscored opponents a combined 84-15.

Fusion forward Meredith Johnson-Monfort, a Mahomet-Seymour senior-to-be, was named the tournament's most valuable player. The final reminded her of a 2015 regional loss.

"It ended in the same sad way," she said, "but I'm still really proud of our team for going as far as we did and sticking together and giving it our all."

The four-day tournament in Auburndale, Fla., brought together champions from four regions. Johnson-Monfort finished with three goals while all-tournament teammate Lauren Shanks of Central Catholic had a team-leading four.

"I think our team was strong because most of us have been playing together since we were really young," said Shanks, who scored 42 goals for the Saints last spring. "We all get along super well.

"Even though it didn't end the way we wanted it to, it was still so much fun because being in that atmosphere was so fun."

Normal West's Bekah Nielsen was named the tourney's top goalie.

"She's got long arms, long legs and is very agile," Menke said. "She made four or five really amazing saves." 

The Fusion opened with a 5-0 win over a Pennsylvania squad before downing a North Carolina unit, 3-0. They tied the California team, 1-1, before losing to that same squad in the final.

"It was about as close as it could get," said Menke, who in nine years as a Fusion coach has spent three with this group, whose core formed at age 10.

Menke believes a combination of speed, physicality and soccer smarts set his team apart.

"The chemistry is always there with this group," he said, "but along with that the talent is really there." 

Johnson-Monfort scored 34 goals last high school season, bringing her career total to 74. She is among the Fusion's newer acquisitions.

"I think our team is really good because we all play together and we have so much trust in one another that we don't feel the need to take things into our own hands," she said.

"We just believe in each other and give each other the confidence and support that we need."

Other forwards supporting Johnson-Monfort and Shanks were Normal West's Rylee Billington and Audrey Marsaglia.

Holding fort in the midfield were University High's Julia Herrman, Normal Community's Grace Blair and West's Madison Bergeron.

The defense featured "holding mid" Sabrina Kosharek (NCHS), center backs Jessica Hieb (West) and Maggie Peters (NCHS) and outside backs Katy Quinn (NCHS), Hanna Simmons (West) and Sarah Hodgen (West).

Rounding out the roster were Olivia Teplitz-Crawford (West), Julia Marsaglia (West), Bradi Schuckman (NCHS) and Shannon Tomlinson (NCHS).

Not in Florida, but helping the team get there, were Lexia Aranda (West), Caelyn Steffens (NCHS), Megan Seger (NCHS) and Grace Redden (Champaign Central).

During the tournament, Menke fielded queries from college coaches every game.

"They are getting lots of interest," he said of his players. "Most of them are going to be juniors. Meredith has multiple offers."

The Fusion, who will be renamed the Illinois Fire Juniors next month, expect to become even stronger as their success attracts other stars.

They also will be driven by the memory of an exceedingly narrow loss that gave them a motivational gift: unfinished business.

Follow Randy Sharer on Twitter: @PG_sharer

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