PORTAGE | Don't get Will Fortenberry wrong, he respects the success Lake County has had recently in high school soccer.
"What's it been? (How many) titles in the last three years?" Fortenberry said while referring to Lake Central's single-class boys title in 2010 followed by Crown Point's 2A boys titles in 2012 and 2013.
"That's what a good feeder system will do; that's what a good soccer academy will do like the Chicago Fire Juniors in Crown Point," Fortenberry said. "That's what we're trying to establish here.
"When I played soccer at Portage High School, we looked forward to beating up on Crown Point. Now, the tables have turned."
Fortenberry, a 2007 PHS grad, has since returned to his alma mater as the assistant boys soccer coach and is the Portage Parks Youth Soccer League director.
At the urging of Fortenberry's former coach, AJ Monroe — who recently resigned from his second stint at head coach at PHS — Portage Parks started the Indoor Soccer Academy, a youth program that holds twice-a-week training sessions and Saturday games for ages 7-14 at Woodland Park.
Fortenberry is the director of the academy.
"When incoming freshman come to play at the high school, most will say they've played soccer their whole life," Fortenberry said, "but for the most part, they do not know how to properly pass the ball to the feet and much more."
"I don't want to take anything away from (volunteer youth league) coaches because most do the best that they can and they're doing it for the kids. But it takes knowledge of the game and a lot of time to properly teach the basics."
Assisting Fortenberry are fellow Indians alumni Ross Bailey and Christian Cherry, and Portage girls head coach Gina Swenson.
"It was essential to have Gina be a part of our training team to help get more girls involved in Portage soccer," said Fortenberry, who also teaches at the high school. "We have not had a girls JV program for two seasons."
The inaugural session of the Portage Indoor Soccer Academy started several weeks ago. The second session is due to start Jan. 6, and signups are currently underway.
Fortenberry hopes the next session will have greater girls turnout. He also wishes that more novice youth coaches would attend the free coaches clinics offered periodically throughout the year by Portage Parks.
"There are also lesson plans online with the Indiana Youth Soccer, (but) people do not use them," Fortenberry said.
In addition to his staff and former coach, Fortenberry credits Portage Parks Sports Coordinator Ralph Mundt for helping the academy get started and gain a foothold.
"(Mundt) has been a huge help administratively as well as with organizing dates, times ... paper work," Fortenberry said.
Grace Withrow may be more responsible for Valparaiso's deep postseason run than any other Viking.
The junior came up with big plays and important goals to settle her team at points when Valpo seemed nervous not quite ready for the moment.
She scored two of the Vikings' three goals in two regional games. She scored the goal that allowed Valparaiso to get to and eventually beat Homestead in a penalty-kick shootout in the semistate semifinal.
"I think that playing under pressure is something that I’ve learned to deal with over the past few years, whether it be taking a P.K. at semistate or knocking down crucial free throws down the stretch," Withrow said. "I knew this season that I was a captain and needed to perform well under pressure and always stay composed so that my teammates wouldn’t freak out."
The goal that pushed the Vikings past rival Crown Point in the regional final is the one she'll remember.
"Being hugged and even kissed by my teammates after scoring the goal that put us up 1-0 is a feeling that is indescribable," Withrow said. "It’s a moment of pure joy that not many things in life can give you."
Withrow's composure in crunch time is just one of the reasons she's the 2013 Times Player of the Year.
"She has a quality shot on goal from close or far range, which is expected to be key in tight games," coach Rob Cespedes said. "She knows her responsibilities and takes them seriously and proudly."
When told that more than one region coach suggested her as player of the year, Withrow said she hoped they saw more than her stat sheet.
"It’s very humbling to find out that coaches and representatives from various other schools recognized my talents and decided to choose me for this incredible honor," Withrow said. "I hope that the aspect of my game that really stuck out to them was my passion, pride, leadership and will to win."
"I think that the soccer skills and stats are very important, don’t get me wrong, but the mental stuff is crucial."
The mental stuff is going to be crucial as Withrow transitions into her winter role as the Vikings' starting point guard.
One thing's for sure: She can be counted on in the clutch.
"Our team this year was young and maybe not as talented as we’ve been in the past, but. boy. did we play with heart and that’s why we were successful," Withrow said. "I believe my love for the game and the love for my teammates made me a better soccer player this season."
Jenna Arnold | Crown Point
Analysis: Arnold may have been the Times Player of the Year if not for Withrow. Coach Chris Mikrut moved her from defense --where she set the standard for the region-- to the midfield and she was just as effective. Arnold had 13 goals and seven assists.
Bridget Brendza | Chesterton
Analysis: Brendza was the catalyst for Chesterton’s offense that helped the Trojans to an undefeated season in DAC play. She recorded 20 goals and six assists on the year, and she was not afraid to go in pursuit of the net from any spot on the field.
Madisyn Coudriet | Chesterton
Analysis: Chesterton allowed just four goals in putting up a 7-0 record in DAC play, and Coudriet was a big part of that. As the center back in a three-back defensive system, she was the leader of the best defense in the DAC.
Shaquita Dillard | Merrillville
Analysis: Coach Ben Daniel says Dillard may be the best player he's coached in his six seasons with the Pirates. It's difficult to find an opposing coach with a bad thing to say about her. Dillard's speed and ball skills were on par with any defender in the area.
Shannon Eden | Wheeler
Analysis: Eden was everywhere on the field for the Bearcats in her midfield position. She finished the year with 10 goals and 10 assists and coach Bryan Murray called her one of the best central defenders he’s seen. No matter where the ball was this year, she was sure to be close by.
Allyson Goodrich | Munster
Analysis: Goodrich led the Mustangs with 15 goals and 12 assists. She made hard runs at the right time and in the right place and was able to beat defenders on the dribble if she needed to.
Lauren O'Keefe | Crown Point
Analysis: O'Keefe provided some height in the box for the Bulldogs and was always a threat to score. C.P. may have played a few more postseason games had she not suffered a concussion during sectional play.
Lauren Reineke | Valparaiso
Analysis: Reineke served as the only senior captain on the Vikings, and she led them both on and off the field. Playing the center midfield position, Reineke was in on the offensive plays, scoring seven goals on the year, and she was able to get back and help out on defense as well.
Kristina Veljovic | Valparaiso
Analysis: Veljovic not only kept shots out of net by helping to record 11 shutouts on the season, but she also scored two goals when she played in the field. She allowed just three goals in Valparaiso’s eight-game winning streak near the end of the season and made crucial stops in the semistate win over Homestead in a penalty-kick shootout.
Hannah Wilder | Kankakee Valley
Analysis: The future Drake Bulldog led the area in goals with 24. Wilder is tall, fast and has a big leg. Coach Alex Conklin credits her with single-handedly winning several games this season.
Grace Withrow | Valparaiso
Analysis: The 2013 Times Player of the Year paced the Valparaiso attack from the beginning of the season. She netted a hat trick in the opener against LaPorte and kept going from there. She scored in each of Valpo’s regional wins and again in the semistate win over Homestead.
Duneland Athletic Conference
Chesterton – Anne Marie Radzik, Kristin Mabry, Bethany Molnar. Crown Point -- Meghan Morasan, Jr., GK; Katrina Ornelas, So., D; Delaney Benich, Fr., F. Lake Central -- Lindsay Kusbel, Jr., GK; Abigail Peppin, Jr., MF/D; Lyana Burrink, Sr., F. LaPorte – Tiarra Spikes. Michigan City – Hannah Laux, Paige Tharp. Merrillville -- Alyssa Bailey, So., GK. Portage – Alexis McDaniels, Carrie Prohl, Patty Mota. Valparaiso – Ashley Thomas, Lexi Ferngren.
Northwest Crossroads Conference
Munster -- Jessica Flores, Jr., MF; Cayla Bales, Jr, MF; Lexie Lyons, So., F. Griffith -- Yadira Castellanos, Sr., MF; Emily Duhon, Sr., F. Andrean -- Maddie Mandich, Jr., GK; Natalie Nowesnick, So., MF/D. Kankakee Valley -- Natalie Lotz, Sr., MF; Alyssa Cox, Sr., MF; Haleigh Wenglarz, Sr., MF. Highland -- Paige Brown, Sr., F. Lowell -- Kimberly Kasparian, Jr., D. Hobart -- Sydney Hicks, Sr., F.
Great Lakes Athletic Conference
Clark -- Sonia Ruiz, Jr., D. Hammond -- Elizabeth Navarro, Jr., F.
Northwest Indiana Soccer Conference/Porter County Conference
Boone Grove – Olivia McCafferty, Emily Martinez, Sara Martinez, Allie Hill. Covenant Christian -- Sophia Van Keppel, Jr., F. Hanover Central -- Melissa Balkema, Jr., F. Hebron – Sarah Paksis. Kouts – Maranda Birmingham. Marquette Catholic – Madeline Wood, Maggie Mellen, Stephanie Espar. Washington Township – Corie O’Connor, Natalie Rokosz. Wheeler – Lauren Fratzke, Terra Philips, Madalynn Crowder, Kadie Spoor.
SOUTH BEND | A win is a win.
Valparaiso couldn't nail things down in regulation, but after a couple of seven-minute overtimes failed to settle the issue the Vikings beat Homestead 1-1 after a round of penalty kicks to advance to the Class 2A South Bend St. Joseph Semistate championship.
"I'll take a win over anything," Valparaiso coach Rob Cespedes said. "If it comes out with a win like this one, I'll take it."
Valpo won the penalty kick round 4-3, with the big save made by keeper Kristina Veljovic on Allison Link's shot. It was the last shot of the penalty kick round and the only one that was saved by either goalie.
"At first, it was surreal. I thought we had another P.K. to shoot in," Veljovic said. "But I just seen my team running at me and I came to the realization that we did it. We did it together."
Veljovic knocked knees with Homestead's Morgann Williams late in regulation and left the game. She returned to the pitch seconds later.
Grace Withrow scored on the Vikings' first shot on goal at 18:38. The kick from 35 yards hung in the air fell just under the crossbar – just out of reach of Spartans keeper Tori Hall.
Homestead evened things at 52:37 on Hannah Miller's pretty pass inside the box to teammate Isabel Wells.
From that point forward, the Spartans – with the aid of a 20 mile per hour wind – controlled the tempo and kept the ball on the Valparaiso side of the field. The Vikings defense still didn't give in.
"They had the wind going with them and at the same time they had some great opportunities and some great connections," Cespedes said. "Luckily, our defense was strong enough to withhold all of that."
ARGOS | Wheeler’s high-powered offense could not get on track against Fort Wayne Bishop Luers.
The Knights possessed the ball for much of the contest and kept the Bearcats from registering a shot on goal as Luers came away with a 1-0 girls soccer semifinal win at Saturday’s Class A Argos Semistate.
Luers finished with a 27-5 edge in shots over the course of the game and totaled a 10-0 advantage in shots on goal.
“Their ball possession was fantastic,” Wheeler coach Bryan Murray said. “They play really well together. It was not the first time they’ve touched a soccer ball this season. We did what we could do.”
The Knights (15-4) scored the only goal of the game in the 13th minute and made that stand up throughout the rest of the game.
Aubrey Feipel put a shot from 12 yards out that went into the net just inside the far post.
A strong wind blew throughout the game, and Luers took the wind in the first half. The Knights controlled possession in the opening 40 minutes and had a 6-0 advantage in shots on goal.
Wheeler (17-2-2) had the advantage of the wind in the second half, but it couldn’t control possession long enough to get a good scoring chance.
Luers kept up the pressure in the second half and had four excellent scoring chances, and Wheeler keeper Kadie Spoor was up to the task each time.
Spoor stopped point-blank shots Addie Reimbold, Shayna Coy and Madeline Reimbold in the second half to keep the Wheeler deficit at 1-0.
The Bearcats registered three shots in the second half. Lauren Fratzke had an opportunity at the edge of the 18-yard box, but her shot went wide of the goal.
The Knights had a chance in the final minute of the first half to add to the lead when Spoor came out of her net to stop an initial shot, but Katie Reif was in the right place to deflect a second shot attempt away.
The Bearcats won the Northwest Indiana Soccer Conference title along with a sectional title and the school’s first regional championship.
“Last year we built to this year, and if the kids can make some strides in the offseason, we’ll see what we can do,” Murray said.
For as potent as the Wheeler offense has been in the Class A Girls Soccer State Tournament, the defense has been even better.
The Bearcats (17-1-2) have allowed just one goal in four postseason games to clinch the school’s first regional title.
Wheeler takes on state No. 3 Fort Wayne Luers at 11 a.m. in Saturday’s Class A Argos Semistate. With a win, the Bearcats would advance to the championship at 6 p.m.
“Across the board, the defense has been great,” Wheeler coach Bryan Murray said. “If you look at any sport, if you play good defense, you’re always in games.”
Seniors Christie Hansen and Marissa Sosa, junior Emily Jackson and sophomore Mady Crowder, along with freshman keeper Kadie Spoor have combined to allow 12 goals in 20 matches. The Bearcats have recorded 11 shutouts this year.
“We keep our shape really well so people can’t break us down,” Jackson said. “If we get into trouble, there are a couple of people to get the ball to. We’re pretty sound.”
Jackson and Hansen occupy the middle of the defense while Sosa and Crowder are the outside defenders. Murray called Crowder the best man-on-man defender he’s ever had.
“It’s a defense that can focus on their strengths,” he said. “They are a cohesive back five. They don’t get rattled much, and if they make a mistake, they are the first ones to correct it.”
This is the second year the defenders have all played together, and Crowder said that has been apparent in their play this season.
“We’re definitely a lot more in sync this year,” she said. “We know a lot better what each person is going to do. We have our own little group back there. We’re pretty proud of ourselves for doing as well as we have done this year.”
Wheeler has not lost a match since suffering its only defeat of the season against Griffith on Sept. 4. One of the keys to the success has been how the confidence the offense has in the defense and likewise the defense in the offense.
“It’s one of those things,” he said. “Our defense trusts that our offense is going to make something happen in 80 minutes, and our offense trusts that the defense will hold a lead. They firmly believe that they will. It’s been a special year.”
Grace Withrow just does what needs to be done.
"I just want to do what I need to do to help the team be successful," the Valparaiso junior said. "This team, we're so much more than a soccer team."
Withrow scored two of the Vikings' three goals in a pair of regional matches with Lake Central and Crown Point. The one against C.P. turned out to be the goal that would leave Valpo as the last Class 2A team standing in the region.
"Grace plays her heart out. She is very quick and strong on the ball. She has wonderful instincts and is a good model for the other girls because of her example," Vikings coach Rob Cespedes said. "She has a quality shot on goal from close or far range, which is expected to be key in tight games. She knows her responsibilities and takes them seriously and proudly.
At 12-6-2, Valparaiso's record has a few more losses and a few fewer wins than a usual regional champion. But that's exactly why the Vikings have had the success they've had in the postseason.
"We're young and we're not afraid to try new things. We never hung our heads. We knew we had nothing to lose," Withrow said. "There's no point in dwelling on the past. We won this regional and we weren't even close in the D.A.C. It felt good."
Camaraderie has also been a theme.
"I think the girls have had a great time this season being with each other," Cespedes said. "We have many talented upperclassmen and underclassmen that are playing together for the first time who just clicked during the season and they are starting to see the results of their togetherness."
Saturday's battle promises to be a defensive one. Valparaiso has allowed only one goal during the playoffs, while Homestead hasn't given up any. The Vikings will play the Spartans in the South Bend St. Joseph semistate semifinal Saturday. The teams battled to a nil-nil tie early in the regular season. Valpo is still an underdog, though, and isn't expected to advance to the state championship. The Vikings are getting used to that role.
"It doesn't bother us (to be the underdog). It motivates us," Withrow said. "The fact that we weren't supposed to win made winning even better. I'm super proud to be where we are. We weren't supposed to be here but we are. But that doesn't mean we're done. I'm not satisfied."
Class 2A South Bend St. Joseph Semistate
Fishers vs. Penn, 9 a.m.
Valparaiso vs. Homestead, 11 a.m.
Championship, 5 p.m
Advancement: Winner will face the Evansville Harrison Semistate winner in the state championship at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at Michael A. Carroll Stadium at IUPUI in Indianapolis.
Favorite: Fishers. Darkhorse: Valparaiso.
Local players to watch: Valparaiso — Lauren Reineke, Sr., MF; Grace Withrow, Jr., MF; Ashley Thomas, Jr., F.
Fast fact: Valparaiso and Fishers have never won semistate championships. No team in this grouping has won a semistate since Penn did in 2007.
Class A Argos Semistate
West Lafayette vs. Argos, 9 a.m.
Wheeler vs. Fort Wayne Bishop Luers, 11 a.m.
Championship, 6 p.m.
Advancement: Winner will face the Evansville Mater Dei Semistate winner in the state finals at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 2 at Michael A. Carroll Stadium at IUPUI in Indianapolis.
Favorite: Fort Wayne Bishop Luers. Darkhorse: Wheeler.
Players to watch: Wheeler — Lauren Fratzke, So., F; Terra Philips, So., F/MF; Shannon Eden, So., MF; Kadie Spoor, Fr., GK; Marissa Sosa, Sr., D; Christie Hansen, Sr., D; Emily Jackson, Jr., D; Mady Crowder, So., D.
Fast fact: All four teams are ranked in the final Class A top 20. Bishop Luers is the only school of the four to have won a semistate title.
-- Compiled by David Funk and Andrew Stem
VALPARAISO | As the clock wound down to the final minute, the Valparaiso faithful held its collective breath.
With 20 seconds left, the crowd came to its feet and roared its approval, as two years of frustration were wiped away.
The Vikings finally avoided futility in a satisfying 1-0 win over Crown Point in the Class 2A Valparaiso Regional championship Saturday night.
“We did it, we did!” the Viking players yelled, jumping up and down on the festive sideline moments later.
C.P. eliminated Valpo in each of the last two seasons in the regional championship, winning 2-1 last year and 1-0 in a shootout in 2011.
“Crown Point is a great team, and they play so hard, especially in the second half,” said Valpo junior midfielder Grace Withrow, whose goal at the 24:48 proved to be the difference. “We just to come out harder than them (Saturday).
“We just had to win all the 50-50 balls and finish when we had the opportunity.”
Valpo (12-6-2) advances to Saturday’s South Bend St. Joe Semistate and plays Homestead (15-2-4) at 11 a.m.
“Finally,” Valpo coach Rob Cespedes said. “Crown Point has always been a very powerful team. … We knew it was going to be a tough go, and the score reflected it.”
After Withrow’s unassisted goal, the Vikings kept up the pressure on the Bulldogs (13-6-1). The Vikings had nine shots on goal in the first half and finished with a 15-5 advantage.
Valpo lost 3-2 to C.P. in the regular season.
“We corrected our mistakes, and we learned what we needed to do to get it done,” Withrow said. “We learned what we need to do to get it done when it counted in the regional final.”
Valpo hadn’t beaten C.P. since a regular-season win two years ago.
“I’m so proud of the way we came so far,” said senior goalkeeper Kristina Veljovic, who was also in goal in the second half of last year’s regional loss. “We played very well, especially the underclassmen. They wanted it just as bad as the seniors, and we play for each other.”
C.P. coach Chris Mikrut said Valpo hurt them in transition.
“I thought (keeper) Meghan Morasan for us played a great game,” he said. “The last play she had was point blank. You need your keeper to make two or three unbelievable saves, and she did that.
“She gave the girls a chance to win.”
The Vikings, who won their seventh regional title and first since ‘07, don’t want the run to end.
“Each part of the tournament is a step,” Veljovic said. “We took one step over sectionals, now we just took the step in regionals and now we just having to keep climbing until we get to the top.”
UNION TWP. | It wasn’t exactly Alex Praschak’s 15 minutes of fame, but the Wheeler sophomore took advantage of all the time she got at Saturday’s Class A Wheeler Regional.
The Bearcat super sub saw an increased role and more minutes with Katie Reif battling a groin injury for most of the game. Praschak ended a scoreless game at the 59:27 mark and Wheeler went on to claim a 2-0 victory over Boone Grove for the program’s first regional title.
“I feel once we score we get more comfortable, and you could tell it took the pressure off,” said Praschak, who scored her eighth goal of the season. “I’m just glad I did my job and helped us out. I don’t usually start – I just wanted to help the team anyway I could.”
Wheeler (17-1-2), which captured its 13th straight victory, came in favored after a 5-0 victory over Boone Grove during the regular season. The home crowd was getting restless and concerned through 58 minutes of scoreless action before Praschak took some pressure off with a wind-blown shot that just sailed over goalie Mickey Boatwright’s fingertips and into the back of the net.
Shannon Eden added the final goal at 64:18, her ninth of the season.
Wheeler peppered the goal with 13 shots to only two for Boone Grove in the first half, but it had nothing to show for it.
“Our goal was to hold it as close we could,” Boone Grove coach Chad Roggow said. “Being the underdog, the longer you can hold the other team, the anger and the mental aspect gets to them. It worked for a while, but momentum definitely changed on (Praschak’s) goal and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“I couldn’t ask more with our season and the individuals I had, especially the way we hung in there compared to the last time.”
Wheeler freshman goalkeeper Kadie Spoor got her 11th shutout of the season for the Bearcats, who are young and talented. Wheeler controlled the game throughout, but top sophomore scorers Terra Philips (20 goals, 16 assists) and Lauren Fratzke (19 goals, six assists) were held in check by a scrappy Boone Grove defense which hung in there despite allowing 19 shots on goal. Boatwright, playing her final high school game, was stellar with 10 saves.
“We are well conditioned, we don’t sub that much, and we have no problem playing (girls all) 80 minutes,” Wheeler coach Bryan Murray said. “I think you saw when the game wore on that’s when we had the advantage. It’s nice knowing we have kids who can go the distance.”
VALPARAISO | Ashely Thomas has friends and club soccer teammates around the area, some of whom she felt didn't take Valparaiso seriously.
Thomas feels like the host Vikings' 2-0 win over Lake Central in the semifinals of the Class 2A Valparaiso Regional on Wednesday earned them some respect.
"We struggled throughout the season and those teams kind of looked down on us," Thomas said. "We needed to prove ourselves and prove we have what it takes."
Valpo will take on defending regional champ Crown Point in the final Saturday. The Bulldogs topped Hammond 9-0 earlier in the night.
"I think it is right for that to be the regional championship game," Vikings coach Rob Cespedes said. "It feels right."
Thomas's goal in the 43rd minute broke a scoreless tie. Thomas found a deflection in the box and put a line drive into the nylon on the left side.
Thomas missed a huge opportunity for the Vikings (10-6-2) in the 34th minute. Lake Central defender Hannah Triveline fell, leaving Thomas with a direct line to the goal. But Indians keeper Lindsay Kusbel made a diving stop and Ingrid Wagner's rebound sailed over the goal.
"After I kind of screwed up in the first half a couple times, I needed to redeem myself," Thomas said. "I wanted to recover from that so I was taking a shot to help out the team."
Grace Withrow added another score about 10 minutes later.
L.C. (8-8-1) played well defensively and goalie Lindsay Kusbel finished with 13 saves, but it wasn't enough.
Crown Point (13-5-1) got things going early in their semifinal. Jenna Arnold scored her first goal at 2:22 and her second at 24:45. Kara Ford had one in between.
Delaney Benich and Jenna McCarroll scored before the break and it was 5-0 at halftime.
Arnold earned a hat trick with a goal in the second half. Benich tallied another, while Jenna McCarroll and Maridee Krampen each scored before the final horn.
"It was kind of lackluster in the first half," Bulldogs coach Chris Mikrut said. "I told the girls that the goals weren't as important as the play. We've got to get back to a pattern."
Hammond (6-7) lost keeper Miriam Martinez late in the first half to an arm injury. Martinez had 11 saves at that point and was keeping the Wildcats alive. It was 3-0 at that point.
Martinez returned in the 47th minute.
"We're really excited to be here. Five of my girls have been playing soccer and the other seven, this is their first time playing soccer," coach Mayra Rodriguez-Alvarez said. "To make it this far is a big accomplishment, in general. I'm very proud of them."
It was the first regional game in school history for Hammond.
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