Stunning upsets mark early rounds of state tournament play

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This space is not quite sure how to respond to the rash of upsets that marked the first full week of state tournament play, especially in the largest classification, Class 3A. Three of the top four and five of the top ten teams in the Sun-Times’ rankings have been bounced from the state tournament.

Oak Park-River Forest, ranked No. 20 in the current poll, stunned defending Class 3A state champion and top-ranked Morton 2-1, on the Mustangs’ home field Friday in Cicero.

The game is predicated on emotion and intensity, but also momentum. Oak Park-River Forest coach Paul Wright expected his team to be one of the best in the area. They started the year 1-4-1, clearly missing the offensive prowess of graduated star Stephen Golz, who set a school-record in goals last year.

They also had injuries, most significantly a shoulder injury suffered by senior midfielder Gianluca Lo Casto, the team’s emotional leader, and that played havoc with rotations and team chemistry.

As the team gained in experience, its leaders, like Lo Casto and Okker Verhagen, said the Huskies were a top-ten team. Oak Park-River Forest is now 13-3-1 since its ugly start, and those three losses were each one-goal defeats against power programs West Chicago and conference rivals Hinsdale Central and Lyons.

Younger players developed, like junior midfielder Tim Huettel, who scored both goals against Morton. Also, as we noted the results are a function of how ridiculously loaded the Argo Sectional is. Public League city champion Kelly was the 12th seed, and they gave Hinsdale Central everything they wanted in losing 1-0 Wednesday at St. Ignatius.

“I think it testifies to the evolution of the game and how skilled the players have become,” Hinsdale Central coach Michael Wiggins said immediately afterward. The Red Devils also survived the host Wolfpack Friday, winning 3-2, to set up a rematch with Oak Park-River Forest Tuesday in Summit.

Hinsdale Central was ranked No. 4 in the last Sun-Times’ poll, and fifth in its sectional.

Scoring reigns supreme in soccer, and the fact is, it gets progressively harder to score in the state tournament. The equivalent is basketball, where in the playoffs, teams slow the pace and limit possessions, the lower scores more likely to produce upsets.

In soccer, teams have a defense-first mentality, and coaches routinely drop an extra midfielder or forward on the backline. Increasingly, more and more bodies are packed into tighter areas, and the congestion just makes it harder for players to create scoring chances.

Also, let’s face it, the IHSA’s revised overtime format has also had a significant impact. In the girls’ state final last spring, Naperville North beat St. Charles North in the 119th minute. Those four overtime games have been legislatively banned, in effect. Now, the format is more direct: two 10-minute “golden goal,” overtimes, if necessary, followed immediately by penalty kicks.

In two other stunning results, Fenwick beat Lyons and Wheaton South outlasted Naperville North, the two teams lost were both ranked in the top four. Naperville North coach Jim Konrad questioned the change, and there is validity to his complaint.

The longer you extend the game, the more likely the favorite to pull it out.

Penalty kicks by their very nature replace skill, toughness and resolve with more amorphous factors like “luck,” or “chance,” and it eliminates one team’s dominance. In soccer, more so than any sport, dominance does not predict victory.

It is not uncommon to see one team control possession time and scoring opportunities and still lose on a fluke shot, a handball in the box that yields a penalty kick, or some such strange and unexpected development. What it comes down to is the best team does not necessarily win.

That’s the beauty and wonder of sport, especially at the high school level. What this means going forward is open. If the rash of upsets continue through the sectional rounds, the year is likely to be remembered as one where all the previously held ideas and suppositions lost their currency.

It could also mean the two teams the Sun-Times projected at the top to start the year, Naperville Central and Warren, are back where they started, the two teams everybody else is looking to knock out.

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