Now 23 months removed from a two-year run that featured back-to-back Final Four appearances in the IHSA state tournament — including a state championship in 2012 — the current group of Warren High School boys soccer players is determined to get the program back on the radar screen.
A good start on that quest would be winning the North Suburban Conference Lake Division title, and the Blue Devils are in good shape there, sitting at 4-0 with two games still to play.
Warren’s overall record is 10-2-4, the latest win coming 4-2 Tuesday night at Antioch (10-6) which is the area’s top Class 3A soccer program (Warren plays in 4A — big schools).
The four-goal outburst was a good sign, as the one area where veteran coach Jason Ahonen’s club has struggled this fall is in finishing.
“It’s been a struggle to score at times, but it’s not because we’re not talented,” he said. “It’s figuring out where we need to be and when we need to be there. We’ve been focused on it.”
The goals against Antioch were scored by Jackson McKearnen (22nd minute), Nick Haas (50th), Mikey Pliskat (69th) and Kevin Penarrieta-Campero (73rd).
Antioch had tied the game at 2-2 on goals by star Iven Hernandez (29th minute) and Krystian Streit (54th).
“We don’t have that true finisher who’s going to go out and score 20 goals this year, but we have a bunch of guys who can find the back of the net when they put themselves in a position to be successful,” Ahonen said. “That’s what we’re preaching. We don’t need them to break down two or three defenders. We want them to buy into what we’re doing, find those areas, and trust their teammates to do their job.”
Warren started the season with a bunch of ties, and had an eight-game winning streak at one point.
Right now, the focus is on winning the NSC Lake.
“Warren has more trips to state than we do conference titles. We have four trips to state. We have two outright conference championships in our program’s history,” Ahonen said. “This conference is tough. You look who is in it, and year after year, there are quality teams. As a conference, we didn’t have anybody go downstate last year, but we had six teams in the previous five years. It doesn’t really get better conference-wise than the North Suburban.”
When Warren won the state title in 2012, it became the first and still only Lake County team to be crowned champs.
Does the coach see any similarities between this team and the teams that played downstate?
“The whole ‘state’ word scares me,” Ahonen said. “It’s hard enough to wear the shield and represent your school at Warren. We have a motto: ‘Tradition doesn’t graduate.’ For these guys to meet those expectations every year, it’s not really attainable. We’re focused on winning the conference right now, and then on winning a regional. If we can do that, we’ll see what happens.”
Pliskat, a senior midfielder, was a sub on the 2012 team that won state.
“The upperclassmen on the state team all played together growing up, and our team has also been playing together since we were little, like them,” he said. “Our touches and the way we play from the outside and crossing it in, it’s all the same.”
Chris Travis, a sophomore starter on the 2012 team, also seems similarities.
“The work rate of our midfield is absolutely terrific,” he said. “There are a lot of similarities between Nick Haas and (2012 star) Daniel Szczepanek. His work rate is amazing. Playing on the outside, our tactics are pretty much the same. We have Kevin (Penarrieta-Campero, (Jacob) Luka, Jack (McKearnean), and Mike (Pliskat) pushing the ball up. It’s very similar.”
One of the younger players is sophomore Penarrieta-Campero.
“We just have to play with energy and keep up the good work,” he said.
For at least another month.