By Matt Le Cren
For the Bugle
When Romeoville soccer player Dominique Martinez was a freshman, opposing teams routinely expected to beat the Spartans easily.
They still do, but the wins don’t come as easily now. Some games they don’t come at all.
That’s because Martinez and fellow senior co-captains Allison Vitel, Gabi Chavez and Olivia De La Rosa have worked tirelessly over the past four seasons to build the program to a point where it now earns respect.
Romeoville (7-12-1) enjoyed its best record since 2006, the year before it joined the Southwest Prairie Conference. On March 27, the Spartans beat Joliet West 2-0 to record their first SPC win ever.
Is that something De La Rosa foresaw when she entered Romeoville?
“I did but it was very hard to see it with the way the upperclassmen were before,” De La Rosa said. “So I think our class kind of pushed for the better.”
That is an understatement. The seniors have impressive resumes and all four may play college soccer.
De La Rosa, a forward, has signed with St. Francis, where she will study nursing. Vitel, a defender who has nine goals, will play at Joliet Junior College, while Chavez, a defender, plans to walk on at North Central. Martinez, who leads the team with 14 goals and 10 assists, could join Chavez unless she decides to walk on at Illinois-Chicago.
“It’s extremely rare (to have that many play in college), so we’ve been blessed to have those four,” Romeoville coach Phil Wicyk said. “It’s been a nice core.”
It is a core that hasn’t crumbled under the pressure of competing against better, more established schools in a soccer-rich area. While Romeoville is far from an elite team, progress has been tangible.
“We’ve improved considerably,” Wicyk said. “Before I took over we were a program that didn’t score in conference and now we’re able to compete and win our first SPC game ever.”
What led to the turnaround?
“Probably just the chemistry we’ve had,” De La Rosa said. “We’ve all grown up together and we’ve always wanted to be better each and every year.
“I feel we have dedication and a constant will and heart to want it. We’re definitely putting our name on the map. We’re making people kind of do a double take on Romeoville.”
De La Rosa and fellow forward Martinez have played with each since they were in fifth grade and all four seniors started playing the sport well before that.
“The key is we’ve bonded with our teammates, trying to explain to them what it means to play the game because many of them don’t have as much experience as the others,” Martinez said. “From my perspective, I show them how to play the game and try to put it at their level. We let them learn from things.”
Vitel, the team’s sweeper who plays alongside Chavez, said the seniors demand more of the younger players than past leaders did.
“We’ve been driving to push everyone and be committed,” Vitel said. “This year we really pushed people to do their best and kept motivating them to keep going and not give up.”
The seniors are role models, not only because of their skill but the example they set by their work ethic and the camaraderie that comes from playing together for many years.
“We played together in middle school,” said Vitel, who began playing when she was 6 and started travel ball in seventh grade. “You know where they want the ball and you know how they play, so once you play with them for a while, you know where they are going to be.”
Chavez, who wants to become a physical therapist, says the Spartans are pushovers no more.
“I think what has turned it around is our determination,” Chavez said. “Me and the three other seniors, we want to be the change in Romeoville and our whole mindset has changed as (previous) seniors have left and we’ve gotten older.
“We’re stronger, we’re faster and we’re better. It’s definitely a great feeling.”
The seniors will leave a huge hole in the lineup when they graduate, but they feel confident they have planted the seeds of success in the minds of younger players like freshman forward Azucena Gomez, who scored a goal in a 3-1 loss to Eisenhower and may succeed Martinez as the team’s top scoring threat.
“They are definitely looking up to us,” Chavez said. “Even our coaches are telling them we are the influences, so once we leave, they have big positions to fill.
“I’m definitely proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
While opponents may not have taken notice yet, the Spartans know a lot has changed.
“When I was a freshman, the other team expected us to lose as usual,” said Martinez, who plans to pursue a career in sports medicine. “They still think that now, but we know what we need to do and we try to do that every time.
“It’s really an accomplishment. It has shown that we’ve changed in the four years that I’ve been here.”
The change has not gone unnoticed by other Romeoville students.
“The guys used to (talk down to us), like ‘you suck,’ and things like that,” Chavez said before the Eisenhower game. “Today a guy was talking to me and he was like, ‘yesterday your game was pretty intense, I was really into it.’ That meant a lot.”
The efforts of the “Core Four” have meant a lot to Wicyk.
“You can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done for the program with leadership and guiding this program to where it needs to be,” Wicyk said. “I think it’s just the beginning.
“When they come back they’ll see where this program is going to be and it’s pretty much all because of them.”
Romeoville defeated Bolingbrook 3-2 in overtime, coming back from a 2-0 defecit.
The Spartans tied the match in the final 40 seconds to send it into overtime.