By Steve Robinson | June 3, 2018 - 10:22 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

Normal Wildcats head Girls’ Soccer coach Val Walker tried not to let his players get ahead of themselves as this season began. Most coaches won’t allow players to think too far ahead beyond the game in front of them. But in recent years, it sounds like the Wildcats got ahead of themselves to the point that, when this season started, Walker instituted the “one game at a time” approach. That approach got the Wildcats all the way to the final four of State Finals, starting with a sendoff from the school on May 31 before heading to the campus of North Central College in Naperville to compete in the Illinois High School Association Class 2A State Soccer Tournament.

The approach Wes employed this season resulted in the Wildcats finishing the year with a 20-7-3 mark after losing the semifinal to Arlington Heights St. Viator, 1-0, and then needing to summon the strength to try to break a tie in the consolation match, winding up earning fourth place after a 1-0 overtime loss to Lemont High School .

But before the Wildcats left for Naperville via charter bus, the team bonded over a meal, encouraging each other and hearing a pre-departure pep talk from their coach. His talk came complete with props, but not any props, but the two trophies West had won at State Soccer in years past – a 3rd place trophy from 2008, and a 2nd place trophy from their 2014 appearance.

From there, Walker encouraged, there was only one direction to go as a result of the team’s previous performances – 1st place.

“I can’t wait,” said Julia Marsaglia, one of the seniors who is a team captain, when the team went around the room to express the feeling they were having as the big event drew near.

As the team boarded the charter bus afterward, between 60-75 well-wishers waved and cheered in the school’s front parking lot along Parkside Rd.

Once they were in Naperville , I kept tabs on the team’s progress. Their end result wasn’t what they had hoped for, but they were able to add to the school’s trophy case after a long season.

Sunday Celebration: Fourth place is never the goal when a sports team’s season begins. But sometimes, that’s where it winds up through one circumstance or another. Despite that finish, there was cause for celebration, and celebrate is exactly what the Wildcats did at a rally in the school cafeteria on Sunday. The players and many of their parents were in attendance for the post-season event.

Walker opened the celebration by saying he couldn’t do what he does “without a strong family foundation,” as a means of thanking his wife, Mary, and their kids. He also thanked his assistant Brady Piepenbrink, Lewis, and West Principal David Johnson for their support.

Walker also paid tribute to Livi Sonetz, a West Softball player who was killed in a car accident on March 8, the first day of practice for Soccer this season. There was supposed to be a first practice for his team that day, but instead, he and the team joined a group of teachers and students to grieve her loss that day.

After that, while the team was still grieving, Walker said, the Wildcats faced Normal Community High School and lost. But Walker explained, based on what he had seen in his players that day, “I knew we were going to get better. We just needed to play these one game at a time.”

He said the girls “started to believe in themselves” following a victory over Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin. Getting a high seed in the opening round, he said, helped his team avoid facing one of a pair of powerful squads, University High and Mahomet-Seymour as they approached the opening round of the playoffs.

Senior midfielder Melanie Bautista was voted “Most Improved Player” by her teammates, Walker announced to the gathering. Walker also recognized the team captains – seniors Olivia Peters, Samantha Whelan, Marsaglia, junior Bekah Nielsen, and Bautista – for their efforts this season. The work and determination of the team made them “yearn to get better,” Walker said. “Thank you, ladies, for all you’ve done this season.”

Unit 5 Board Member Meta Mickens-Baker was present and passed along the congratulations of the Board to the team during the session.

Peters told the gathering she has been playing Soccer since she was five said getting to State “was a great way to retire” from the sport, and thanked her parents for their support. Marsaglia added, “This team was the best team for me, not just for Soccer, but for anything in my entire life.”

As they get older, other things will come along involving family, jobs, other activities waiting for them in the future. But for that moment Sunday, this is what mattered to those kids, and years from now, they can look back and know they added to Normal West sports history.

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