Four years in the life of a teenager qualifies as a long time, which explains why Lyons Township High School soccer player Erin Fitzgerald was so pumped Friday night.
Fitzgerald scored the game-winning goal as the top-seeded Lions knocked off Benet 3-0 to capture the Class 3A Downers Grove South Sectional championship.
It is the first sectional title in four years for LTHS, which advances to face Lincoln-Way North in the Lewis University Supersectional.
“We haven’t done it in a very long time so it’s a big deal,” Fitzgerald said of the sectional crown. “We really wanted to do well this year. We feel we have the team to go very far in the state, so this was a big goal and we’re looking forward to the next game.”
After Benet (18-3-3) just missed scoring on a header in the 11th minute, Fitzgerald, a senior midfielder, gave LTHS (19-3) a huge boost when she blasted a 28-yard free kick into the lower left corner of the net with 11:19 to go in the first half.
The Cornell recruit has been deadly throughout her career on free kicks and doesn’t remember how many goals she has scored off set pieces.
“This year hasn’t been my best year for free kicks, but in my career I’ve had a few,” Fitzgerald said. “I just collected myself, took the time and just kind of calmed down enough to be able to gather myself to take the shot.”
That would be all the Lions needed as they turned in yet another outstanding defensive effort. The all-senior back line of Grace Nasenbenny, Sarah Drew, Catherine King and CC Holbert held the Redwings, who came in with an 11-game unbeaten streak, to just three shots. LTHS goalie Lidia Breen had to make just one save in recording her squad’s 14th shutout and seventh straight win.
The Lions had actually trailed early in their 5-2 sectional semifinal win over York, so scoring first was a big boost.
“The fact that Erin got that goal just helped so much,” Nasenbenny said. “I think it was huge.
“I think it just gave us the momentum to keep going forward and keep persevering through everything that they had to throw at us. We all just wanted it so bad.”
That desire eventually allowed the Lions to wear down Benet’s stingy defense, which had allowed only 13 goals before Friday. LTHS sophomores Bridget Kirby and Gabby Hart broke through for two late goals.
Kirby made it 2-0 when she settled a cross from Holbert and calmly drilled a 20-yard shot inside the left post with 15:39 to go in the second half. Hart’s strike, a 30-yarder under the crossbar, came with 1:51 to go off an assist by junior Kristen Janicki.
“We played okay but I didn’t think we played our best and part of that is Benet,” LTHS coach Bill Lanspeary said. “Their defense is great and they hustle in the midfield and take away a lot of stuff that you want to do.
“But we were able to capitalize on a Fitzgerald free kick in the first half, which is big, and then in the second half we started doing some things better.”
That fact that LTHS didn’t play its best bodes well for the Lions, who are three wins away from winning their first state championship. LTHS edged Lincoln-Way North 1-0 on April 5. A win over the Phoenix (21-3-1) would send the Lions to the state semifinals at North Central College on June 6 against St. Charles East or Huntley.
“We’ve had it in our mind to go to state,” Nasenbenny said. “That is our goal. We want it so bad and I think since everyone is on the same page it’s been helping our team move forward through every game and get past difficult situations and just keep trying our best and working hard.”
“I’m thrilled for the kids,” Lanspeary said. “They’ve had the goal and worked really hard for it.”