Naperville Invite hosts best teams in state

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The Naperville Invitational is not the largest regular season girls soccer tournament in Illinois, but it is arguably the strongest.

The 24-team field includes squads that have combined to win 22 state championships in the past 26 years, including 11 of the last 12, plus 20 runner-up finishes.

Since the tournament began in 1998, the winner has gone on to win the state title seven times and finish second once.

The event is the brainchild of Naperville Central coach Ed Watson and former Naperville North coach Al Harris, who modeled it on the eight-team Best of the West boys tournament hosted by the two schools. But it soon expanded.

“The original premise was to make it a format very much like the state tournament weekend and the state tournament [at the time] was being held on our field, so there was certainly a lot of positives for teams to come because it was a great practice opportunity for them,” Watson said.

“Then as we grew and more and more teams entered it just became a situation where teams were looking at it like, if you want to compete, you’ve got to go against the best and we certainly have a large contingent of quality teams.

“Obviously there are some good ones that aren’t with us, but if you look at the best teams in the state right now, other than Buffalo Grove, who are we missing?”

Indeed, this year’s tournament, which begins Thursday with pool play, features eight of the top 10 teams in the Chicago Sun-Times rankings and every area team except Metea Valley.

Three of last year’s state semifinals are here, as is newcomer Plainfield North, coached by former Naperville Central star Jane Crowe.

The field is broken into eight, three-team groups that play round-robin the first weekend. The quarterfinals will be May 1. Naperville Central will host the semifinals on May 2 and the title match at noon on May 3.

The format means the champion will have beaten three elite teams in as many days, a test even tougher than the state tournament provides. That makes it especially memorable to those who have won it.

“Winning the Naperville Invite will always be a victory I will never forget,” said Neuqua Valley senior Courtney Keefer, who was in goal when the Wildcats beat Lyons 1-0 for the 2011 title. “I still remember the moment [we] scored the winning goal. That was my freshman year and although it was a long time ago it will forever be one of the best memories I have not only from high school but from my soccer career in general.”

That feeling is a common denominator for those who have won the tournament. Naperville Central senior Grace Orndorff said beating rival Naperville North 1-0 on penalty kicks in the 2012 final is the highlight of her career.

“That was a great game against North,” the Northwestern-bound Orndorff said. “[The tournament] is always a great challenge and one of the things I look forward to. We get to play our rivalry teams and it gives us competition that we don’t get to experience otherwise.”

Naperville North junior Abbie Boswell has helped the Huskies win the last two state championships. Those titles are the only things she ranks above winning the Naperville Invitational, which the Huskies captured for the first time with a 3-0 victory over Naperville Central in 2013.

“It’s super special,” Boswell said. “To win a tournament is obviously really fun. You get a trophy and everything. But just being able to say you won the Naperville Invite is amazing.”

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