By Matt Le Cren
For the Enterprise
The Plainfield Central boys soccer team made history last fall when it became the first Plainfield school to win a regional championship.
The Wildcats did it despite being seeded 15th in their sectional.
They won three straight playoff games, including upsets of second-seeded Naperville Central and 10th seeded Plainfield East, before losing 1-0 to Neuqua Valley in the sectional semifinals.
Turns out that playoff run was the start of something more.
The Wildcats, who have eight returning starters, improved to 14-1-1 overall and 6-0 in the Southwest Prairie Conference by beating Plainfield North 3-1 in double overtime on Saturday.
Was last year’s run the catalyst for what is happening now?
“Yes, because we had to keep on doing what we do,” Plainfield Central forward Joel Sanchez said. “What we did last year, we have to improve on that this year.”
The Wildcats have done that, in large part thanks to the leadership of captains like Sanchez, defender Ismael Contreras and goalkeeper Shane Badertscher, a four-year starter.
Sanchez was the difference-maker against the upset-minded Tigers, recording a hat trick after Plainfield North (4-13, 2-4) had taken a 1-0 lead in the second half.
Shea Bechtel, one of five freshmen who receive regular playing time for the Tigers, gave his team the lead with a 22-yard shot past Badertscher into the upper right corner with 26:43 to go in the second half.
“We knew that they were going to come out strong,” Sanchez said. “Every year they come out strong.
“We knew they had (graduated some players) from last year that were good. That doesn’t impact them. They’re still a good team.”
Yet the Wildcats are better and Sanchez was the best player on the field. The senior demonstrated that when he weaved through four defenders in the North penalty area to score the equalizer with 23:42 left.
“We’re composed,” Sanchez said. “We knew we still had time and that there’s still time to come back and nothing is impossible, in soccer especially.”
The Tigers made a bid for the improbable upset, but Badertscher snuffed their last chance to retake the lead when he charged off his line to deflect an open shot from Brian Bertoni with 4:55 to go.
Other than that, the final 15 minutes of regulation and all 20 minutes of both overtimes belonged to the Wildcats, who outshot the Tigers 24-9.
North’s defense was outstanding in holding Sanchez to just one shot until he got the equalizer. He had only three others, but he scored on two of them in the first overtime.
Sanchez got the game-winner with 5:33 left on a shot under the crossbar. Simeon Adesina got the assist with a crisp cross from the right corner. A little over two minutes later, Sanchez headed home a corner kick from Zach Bargas to make it 3-1.
“We’ve been telling them since the beginning of last year that we’re capable of this,” Plainfield Central coach Kevin Fitzgerald said. “Maybe it took that (playoff) run for them to realize it.
“We also learned last year that the seeding probably doesn’t matter much, so that’s something we’ll take about down the road. We’ve got a lot of work to do before that point, of course. I think these guys have been very good about compartmentalizing things.”
Indeed, as the wins pile up, so does the target on the backs of the Wildcats, who have won their last four games by one goal, all on the road. That speaks to their resiliency as well as opponents’ determination to bring their best effort against them.
“These games were all tough but we’ve got to get used to that,” Sanchez said. “We’re strong. That’s how we plan it; to come out strong, win every 50-50 (ball).”
The Wildcats have been rewarded with the third seed at the Class 3A Naperville North Sectional, behind perennial powers Naperville North, the defending state champion, and Naperville Central.
“It’s a good thing,” Sanchez said. “We worked hard for this.”
As the recent games, which include two overtime wins, show, postseason success won’t be easy. Plainfield North, which is the 15th seed, will play 18th seed Plainfield South in a regional quarterfinal, with the winner advancing to face Plainfield Central.
If the Tigers play the Wildcats again, they won’t be intimidated.
“We came out strong (today) and created chances,” Bechtel said. “In the second half we put one away. We kept creating but we gave up one a little later and in overtime we just had some defensive lapses.
“We are definitely a better team than what our record shows. We play good in our games. We just can’t get the results, but I think if we keep playing hard and creating chances, it will start to come together.”