6 months ago, a season did not seem plausible. That would’ve been the worst case scenario for this group of seniors. The class of 2021 had great success at the lower levels and were finally able to showcase that same success in their senior year.
The Panthers came into the season with high expectations, and they lived up to them. The boys posted an 10-4 record, including a trip to the Southwest Prairie Conference Tournament Semifinals. While they came up short of the conference championship, they played a competitive schedule that challenged them every week.
“Honestly I am just so glad that all the guys were able to get out there and into shape and play as a team,” senior defender Paul Ricken said. “Especially for us seniors who saw the pitch one last time before graduation.”
This years’ senior class is a tight knit group that has cherished every moment they’ve had together throughout the season.
“Spending time with the guys really made this year seem more normal,” senior defender Erik Neidlein said. “Especially with it being my senior year, it was great to step on the field one last time.”
One last ride with the guys. One last successful one. The team was able to string together winning streaks of three twice throughout their shortened season, and the players credit that to the relationships they’ve built with each other over the years in the program.
“Our successful season was from our team chemistry,” Neidlein said. “We were friends first and teammates second, and that really made us gel when we were playing.”
It takes more than just team chemistry to be successful. It takes preparation beforehand, not just physically, but mentally as well.
“Before every single game, we would have a team meeting in order to recalibrate ourselves for the next game,” Ricken said. “If we had just won our previous game, we would need to get our heads out of the clouds and back into a relentless mindset.”
That relentless mindset helped lift the Panthers to victories in the extremely competitive SPC West Division, with wins over Plainfield North, Yorkville and a big clean sheet victory against crosstown rival Oswego East.
Through all the success they experienced this year, there was one hump the Panthers just could not get over: West Aurora. The Blackhawks were one of the best teams in the area throughout the entire season, and the Panthers gave them a fight in both the matches the teams played.
They first met at the end of March on the West side. The Panthers brought the fight to the Blackhawks, but it wasn’t enough, as West Aurora came out with a 3-2 victory. But that game meant nothing by the time the two teams met again on April 15, because this time there was a trip to the SPC Finals on the line. The Panthers and the Blackhawks played an instant classic in the SPC Semifinal.
“The final game [against West] was a crazy one,” Neidlein said. “Going up against an undefeated team was challenging and we got a few bad calls from the refs that tripped us up.”
While the Panthers battled their hearts out and left everything on the pitch one last time, the Blackhawks once again proved to be too much, shutting out the Panthers 4-0.
“It was a great experience to go out there and give it everything we had,” Neidlein said. “With all the craziness of this year, it was refreshing to go out there and do something we love.”
Despite not getting to the promised land, this season was nothing to shake your head at. The Panthers have a lot to be proud of.
“I am definitely proud of how we did this season,” Ricken said. “I think us seniors left a solid legacy for the incoming varsity team to be even more successful.”