Senior Max Swicionis had sensed the potential in the Riverside Brookfield High School boys soccer team all season.
The Bulldogs finally showed everyone else on Friday. In the Class 3A Morton Regional final, they nearly pulled off the greatest victory for this class of 14 seniors.
With the regional title on the line, RBHS lost to rival Morton on its home field 1-0. The Bulldogs lost 4-2 on penalty kicks after the game remained scoreless following regulation and two 10-minute overtime periods.
The Bulldogs (10-11-1), the No. 9 seed in the Hinsdale Central Sectional, played with confidence against the top-seeded Mustangs (15-5-2) after losing their Sept. 6 regular-season meeting 2-1 on a last-minute goal.
“We had so much energy from the bench, so much energy from the field. Just wondering where this was all season. I wouldn’t have gone out any other way,” Swicionis said.
“We have friends on the [Morton] team. They were already looking past us. We took that to heart. We knew we could compete with them. We just wanted to give them a run for their money and that’s what we did.”
The Bulldogs elevated their game to an even higher level after a solid performance to defeat No. 8 Jones 2-1 three days earlier in the semifinals on goals by junior Diego Villegas and freshman Kenzo DeLemos. Junior Xavier Salamanca and junior Tomas Kunickas had the respective assists.
For Friday’s penalty kicks, Morton converted all four attempts against RBHS senior goalie Nick Gilberto, whose numerous clutch saves during the game kept the Bulldogs alive, including a point-blank stop in the final minute of overtime.
The Bulldogs, who attempted first, got conversions in the first two rounds from Salamanca and Villegas. Morton freshman Miguel Jimenez, inserted as goalie for sophomore starter Diego Vargas, then made two diving stops.
“An absolute heartbreaker but I couldn’t be more proud of these guys,” RBHS coach Ivek Halic said. “They left everything on the field, went toe-to-toe with a very quality Morton side and took them to penalties. I couldn’t be more happy with these guys. Just an unfortunate way to lose and unfortunate heartbreak for my seniors.”
Morton led 20-5 in shots and 4-1 in corner kicks. Less than two minutes into the second half, DeLemos intercepted an errant pass by Vargas, but Vargas quickly recovered to make the save.
Morton hit the post and crossbar. Other shots were thwarted brilliantly by Gilberto.
“The whole season he’s been playing like this, phenomenal,” Halic said. “He’s kept us in so many games.”
RBHS was riding the memories of the tight regular-season Morton match and its strong 2022 team losing its regional opener to Argo 4-2 after scoring first.
“To come out this year in the regular season and compete with [Morton] and then to lose with a minute left, it just showed us we can compete with anyone,” Swicionis said.
“If we came out like we came out against Morton against every other team, I think we wouldn’t have had 10 losses. That’s just something that these younger guys have to realize and value and bring it for every game because you never know which game is going to make you a higher seed.”
Against Jones, Villegas was elated to give the Bulldogs the early lead. Jones closed to within a goal with 8:20 left, but Gilberto stopped a tying attempt with 4 minutes remaining.
“Probably the No. 1 [highlight this season] for sure because it was against a good Jones team and it was in the regional semifinal,” Villegas said after the victory.
RBHS continued to overcome adversity. Captain Liam Hickey was injured the entire season. Captain David Carrillo was unable to play Friday after receiving a controversial red card in the Jones match for verbal dissent. Injured senior Liam Kaiser played as usual and stepped into his protective boot after the game.
“I absolutely love those [seniors]. I cannot thank them enough for what they’ve done with the program this year,” Halic said.
“Next year’s team is going to have a ton of talent,” Swicionis said. “They’ve just got to realize, take every game seriously, play every game like it’s your last.”