For the past two years on the first weekend in November, Naperville Central’s players endured soul crushing rides on the bus home from Lincoln-Way North.
Now the Redhawks are back for an encore.
After losing back-to-back state Class 3A state championship games, No. 3 Naperville Central qualified for its third consecutive Final Four by knocking out Morton 2-0 in Tuesday’s supersectional at Lewis University. Morton beat the Redhawks 1-0 in overtime in the 2011 state final.
Naperville Central (18-2-2) meets Downstate power Edwardsville (17-2-1) in the second semifinal at 7 p.m. Friday at Hoffman Estates. Top-ranked Wheeling (22-1-2) and No. 2 Lake Park (21-2-3) meet in the first semifinal at 5 p.m.
The Redhawks now have another chance to vanquish the cruel memories of the 2-1 double-overtime loss to Warren last year. “We want to finish it, especially for those guys on the team the last two years who lost,” Naperville Central senior midfielder Devon Amoo-Mensah said.
Senior midfielder Jay Tegge, who scored by bending a corner kick in the 63rd minute, is part of a group of four players, with Amoo-Mensah, Sam Reskala and Drake Swope, that saw action the last two years in state title games. “The emotional toll of [two years] ago and last year it came in even bigger,” Tegge said. “Now, this is the most consistent soccer we’ve played all year.”
The Redhawks made an impression on Morton coach Mike Caruso. “I told one of their assistant coaches before the game, this is now the third straight year they’ve gone [to the Final Four], but this might be their best team,” Caruso said.
After beating last year’s third-place finisher Sandburg 2-0 in the Normal supersectional, Edwardsville enters the state semifinals riding a 12-game winning streak. Naperville Central beat Edwardsville 1-0 in last year’s supersectional.
The first semifinal features a showdown between the top two candidates for this year’s Player of the Year, Wisconsin-bound Lake Park forward Mike Catalano and Wheeling’s all-everything forward Jose Garcia.
After playing club his sophomore and junior years, Catalano made a spectacular return with 29 goals and 11 assists for the Lancers. Garcia has been equally dynamite, registering 27 goals and 10 assists for the Wildcats.
Neither Wheeling nor Lake Park had ever previously advanced beyond the supersectionals.
“I know they have a solid threat similar to Jose who’s capable of putting the game away himself,” Wheeling coach Ed Uhrik said. “They’re a good squad with a solid defense. We know any team still playing this time of year is going to be awfully good.”