October 13, 2010

History, soccer, and a growing rivalry

By James Derrick

CHICAGO -- "Exciting ... Sure to bring nerves to the heart."

Former All-American and Wheaton great, Stephen Rigby's description of the North Park-Wheaton rivalry could not be more defining. Former All-Region player and North Park captain Adam Sinovic attested, "It was the biggest game of the year ... Wheaton was the watermark, and we wanted to win."

For the past 10 years or so, the Central Region, at times the nation has tuned in to the rivalry between North Park and Wheaton. While the teams are experiencing limited success this season, their similar and yet polarizing pasts give insight into two prominent teams, vying for dominance in one of the nation's toughest conferences, the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin. Saturday's rivalry game was no different.

Wheaton's success transcends a history long before that of North Park's, dating to the 1960s. While the '90s saw the height of their dominance on the national scene, Wheaton's deep runs in the national tournament are not uncommon, including a run to the 2006 finals. Since the inception of the CCIW, Wheaton has yet to miss the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, North Park's emergence in the past decade marked the beginning of the soccer program's competitive performances, and shocking upsets of some of the nation's best.

The ascension of John Born as North Park's skipper marked a new era for the Vikings. "[John Born] brought a new intensity to the team that was tempered with a good sense of sportsmanship," claimed former Wheaton coach, Joe Bean, the NCAA's winningest coach. After several years of national rankings, conference championships, and national tournament appearances, North Park has experienced a dip in form, and is looking to revitalize itself, stamping its prominence within the central region this year. What better time to do it than against Wheaton.

Touted now as a high-class rivalry thriller, the North Park-Wheaton rivalry was not always viewed as such from both sides. Being the "pinnacle" match for a North Park player, as described by former All-Regional North Parker Matthew Bond, Wheaton's players considered the match tough, but not on par with the preceding emotions North Park carried into the match. These sentiments changed in 2004, however, when in front of a large crowd. North Park shocked Wheaton 2-0 at Joe Bean Stadium. From that point, North Park proceeded to defeat Wheaton in the following three bouts, claiming the championship again in 2005 with two wins at Joe Bean Stadium.

"We never took [North Park] lightly," said former Wheaton great Justin Risma. "[The games] were always hard-fought and high-energy." Current Wheaton coach Mike Giuliano exacted the claim in saying, "Anyone who wants a Division I experience with fans and great soccer, they get that at these games as both teams have tremendous fans."

Born agrees the 'proverbial rivalry' has intensified, but believes "North Park is still probably viewed as a little brother by Wheaton," considering their rich history and consistent dominance.

Saturday's match was no different. Although the typical beautiful soccer demonstrated by both sides lacked severely, the high levels of intensity did not disappoint. In an evenly fought match, it would be Wheaton's two early first half goals that would prove the difference-maker in the match. North Park's opportunities were more clear-cut, especially as they managed more shots throughout the match, but defensive errors from North Park, and a well-executed game-plan on Wheaton's behalf allowed Wheaton to continue in recovering their form with a second straight conference win.

Immediately, both teams shot out of the blocks to find their tempo and flow, but it was Wheaton who utilized their strengths, playing long balls into target men Drew Golz and Stephen Mesko, and working quick combinations between the Golz, Mesko, and Josh Clark. They were equally dangerous with their set-pieces, and caused headaches for North Park's defense with a few early free kicks. Despite relying on three backs, North Park's well-organized defense, anchored by captain Greg Domanico thwarted Wheaton's attacks, preventing any serious threat on goal. However, keeping their pace, Wheaton was finally rewarded after two good chances when North Park keeper Tim Ahlberg spilled a cross into the path of Mesko, who subsequently pounded home the opener in the 15th minute to draw first blood.

North Park's passing game endured constant disruption, as Wheaton's high pressure prevented offensive catalysts Kris Grahn and Jamie Criticos from effective ball movement. Anytime they were successful, Wheaton resorted to fouling to break down North Park's attack. Next it was the typically stellar Hannes Granlund to provide Wheaton with a second golden opportunity. After recovering a hopeful long ball from Wheaton, Granlund's distribution to the midfield was plucked by Mesko, who quickly slotted a throughball to an on-running Chad Musgraves. In a last-ditch effort to prevent a shot, Musgraves was brought down in the box by North Park left back Kyle Connelly. Drew Golz stepped up to hammer home the penalty and put Wheaton two goals-to-the-good.

In a quick response, North Park began relying on their ball movement, finding open players across the pitch, and causing panic in Wheaton's defense. A long pass from Criticos found North Park forward Filip Lindmark's feet, who turned two Wheaton defenders, beat the third, and slotted past keeper Ryan Seager to pull one back for the Vikings just three minutes after Golz' penalty. The next ten minutes belonged to the Vikings, as they came close twice, but Musgraves and Mesko used the last few minutes to utilize their skill on the ball, vision, and dangerous passing to stem any further North Park offense as the first half came to a close.

Up a goal at halftime, Wheaton's second-half approach proved extremely effective in limiting North Park strengths: inhibiting their ball movement and their shooting ability, and forcing them to resort to long balls for the majority of their chances. Highly organized, big, and deft with the head, Wheaton's defense was on the receiving end of just about every ball North Park floated into their area in hopes create a scoring chance. Criticos, outside midfielder Mike Herbst, and Lindmark did provide North Park with opportunities and openings, but nothing to devastating effect. And when North Park did connect, Wheaton used precisely timed fouls to break-up play, preferring to deal with the long balls from the free kicks.

Wheaton also began to resort to the long ball, but Kyle Connelly and Criticos dominated in the air, stopping Wheaton from crucial counter-attacks. Although Musgraves, Mesko, Golz, and Dan Pavlak managed threatening combination passes- also managed a goal that was called back- it was North Park who maintained the majority of possession and the more clear-cut chances throughout the last 20 minutes of the second half. In keeping with the themes of the game, however, Wheaton buried the Vikings after a defensive error, and an effective, deadly counter-attack as Golz burst past Granlund with a minute left to slot home the third goal for the Thunder win. North Park came painfully close to pulling a goal back in the final seconds, but the strong Wheaton defense held off the Vikings for a much-needed 3-1 victory.

Not easy for North Park seniors to grasp, who may have competed with the Thunder for the final time. "I don't know what to say. . ." claimed a despondent captain Greg Domanico. On the other hand, this may be exactly the injection of confidence the once-15th-ranked Thunder needed to reestablish themselves on the national level. When asked if this win could cause a huge boost in momentum for the remainder of the season, coach Guiliano stated, "Absolutely." In assessing the conclusion of this game, and predicting what lies ahead, it's easy to assume this is probably not the last these two will see of each other this season. As the conference tournament looms, North Park and Wheaton will both be vying to continue their work on conference opponents in hopes to land the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament; and a championship between the two could very well be a stark reality.

Now starts the most important time of the season, at least from a rankings point of view. The NCAA has released their first of three regional rankings that begin to form the basis for at-large invitations to the post-season.
No contests today.
No contests today.
No contests today.