Entering a conference showdown against rival Lyons Township on Sept.18, the Oak Park and River Forest High School boys soccer team had won seven games plus a tie in its previous eight outings.
Although LTHS edged the Huskies 1-0, both perennial contenders remain in the thick of the West Suburban Conference Silver Division race. Other lofty aspirations are still attainable as well.
Jonny Gray scored the game-winning penalty kick for LTHS (8-4, 2-0 West Suburban Silver). OPRF had several chances to score but couldn’t find the back of the Lions’ net.
“It was a good game. (Lyons Township) did a good job pressuring at the beginning of the game,” OPRF coach Jason Fried said. “In the first five minutes, they scored the only goal on a penalty kick and maintained the pressure on us the rest of the first half, although we did start to adapt well.
“In the second half, we controlled the game. Unfortunately, we couldn’t put one away. We had our chances. It was really an even game against a good team.”
Two days after the loss to LTHS, the Huskies (10-2-1, 1-1 West Suburban Silver) bounced back with a 7-0 win over Rock Hills on Sept. 20.
“Overall, we’re doing well,” Fried said. “We’re not perfect; we have plenty of room to improve. Sometimes we make a few mental errors, but overall we’re playing good soccer.”
OPRF, which earned a share of the 2017 conference championship with LTHS and then defeated the Lions to claim a regional title, is winning big again this fall. The Huskies (have won the Leyden Cup Challenge and the Great Midwest Classic tournament at North Central High School in Indianapolis as well this season. OPRF has outscored its opponents 54-10 in 13 games.
The Huskies finished with the best record at the Great Midwest Classic by beating Michigan-based teams Columbus North 5-0 and De La Salle Collegiate 2-0 and tying tournament host North Central 0-0.
OPRF sophomore forward Paul Garcia led the offense with three goals, while senior midfielder James Maguire and junior midfielder/forward Jaime Guillen contributed a goal and two assists apiece. Senior forward Collin McKitrick had a goal and an assist and junior goalkeeper Sam Pecenka notched all three shutouts.
“The team really came together at the tourney in Indy,” Fried said. “They played very smart soccer and adjusted well to very rainy weather. Our defense and goalkeeping really played organized against some very good teams. We didn’t give up a single goal throughout the entire tournament.”
The Huskies have flourished with a balanced lineup all season.
“It’s hard to name top individual players, which is a cool thing about the team this year,” Fried said. “This is a well-rounded group. Everyone has played a role in our success.”
Supporting Pecenka in goal, the Huskies have a solid defensive backfield led by Bram Lebovitz, Blake Soto, Jai Hsieh-Bailey, Zeke Rivera and Ryan Stutz.
Maguire, Guillen and Anthony Silvetti-Schmitt anchor a playmaking midfield.
“Blake Soto is a senior who has done a good job on defense and keeping it organized,” Fried said. “James Maguire is a guy who fights through everything and has been strong in the middle.”
Along with Garcia and McKitrick, fellow forwards Brody Bliss and Grant Kindler provide scoring punch up front.
Brandon Pavon, Dylan Whitney, Olivier Lombardo, Matt Hawthorne, Caleb Pacheco, Zaahir Hall, Karsten Oettel and Mateja Tadic complete the varsity roster.
“We’ve also had a lot of younger guys step up in different areas,” Fried said. “Each game we’ve had different guys step up, which is a good thing to see.”
LTHS is unbeaten in conference, while OPRF, Hinsdale Central and York each have a loss. Glembard West and Downers Grove North field competitive teams as well.
“Our conference is always strong but it feels even stronger this year,” Fried said. “In order to win conference, we’ll probably have to win out the rest of our games. We can do it if we play together and at a high level consistently.”
OPRF has seven games remaining in the regular season, highlighted by conference matchups against Glenbard West, York and Hinsdale Central. The Huskies also play crosstown rival Fenwick Thursday, Oct. 11 (6 p.m.) in the regular-season finale.
“Our expectation is to win conference,” Fried said. “As a team, we want to get better each day. We want to hit our stride heading into the playoffs. No matter how we play, we want to find areas we can improve on.”
Looking ahead to the Class 3A state playoffs, OPRF landed in the Riverside-Brookfield Sectional. Notable teams in the field include the sectional host Bulldogs, OPRF, LTHS, Hinsdale Central, Morton and Argo, plus eight teams from Chicago
“Our sectional is a hard one, but that’s our expectation,” Fried said. “The season will be successful if we play consistently good soccer heading into the playoffs.”
The Huskies host Wheaton Warrenville South on Thursday, Sept. 26. The nonconference game starts at 6 p.m.