When Lincoln-Way North went into the season after losing a supremely talented senior class in 2012 — a group that included 2012 Chicago Fire/SouthtownStar Girls Soccer Player of the Year Rita Craven, All-State midfielder Jessica Bean and two-time All-Area goalie Michelle Balcerzak, among others — Phoenix coach Mike Murphy wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
An outright SouthWest Suburban Red title, a sectional championship appearance and a 15-4-5 finish were not things he saw coming.
“I knew we had a talented group, but we had lost so much talent from last year,” Murphy said. “This was definitely a very surprising season. It was an outstanding performance by the girls.”
Murphy’s job helping Lincoln-Way North reload faster than anyone expected has earned him the title of 2013 Chicago Fire/SouthtownStar Girls Soccer Coach of the Year.
“That honor means a lot for the program,” he said. “We’ve only been around for five years, and our program has come a long way. I give all the credit to our players.”
The big question Murphy had coming into the season was how his team would score goals. Craven and Bean made the offense go last season, combining for 39 goals and 29 assists for a team that won the program’s first sectional crown.
Those worries quickly were put to rest as the Phoenix topped Lincoln-Way East 4-0 in its season opener.
“We come out and put up four on Lincoln-Way East, then we follow that with five on Tinley Park and six on Bloom,” Murphy said. “I was like ‘Wow.’ The great thing about it was we didn’t have that one great goal scorer. We had a great group and everyone contributed.”
Murphy knew his team was for real when, during a six-day span from March 30 to April 4, the Phoenix tied Lyons and Sandburg and earned a 2-1 win over eventual SouthWest Suburban Blue champ Lockport.
The Phoenix went on to sweep through the Red with a 6-0 mark, doing something the star-studded 2012 team couldn’t. That squad had to share the Red crown.
“Early on everyone was talking about what was going to happen without Rita and Bean,” Murphy said. “I said ‘I’m not going to mention those names anymore. We’re not looking back, we’re looking forward.’
“Midway through the season, I told them ‘Do you realize we have a better record than last year? You are a better team this year.’ ”
A veteran North defense proved vital, recording 15 shutouts.
“We had great leadership back there,” Murphy said. “Leigh (LaRocco) and Becca (Morris) were four-year varsity starters. Leigh gave up a goal for the first time all year and it didn’t mean anything for the game, but she was furious. That’s the kind of competitor she is.”
North’s season ended with a 2-1 loss to Sandburg in the Class 3A Andrew Sectional championship, but not before the Phoenix proved it has a program that should never be overlooked.
“Before the season, everyone talked about Andrew and Lincoln-Way Central in our conference,” Murphy said. “No one mentioned us. I sat back and didn’t want to get that target on our backs.
“We lost seven seniors last year and we lose nine this year, but believe it or not, I think we’ll be pretty good next year.”