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Warren soccer makes plenty of noise, but rest of state doesn’t hear of it

RafMacias is one key pieces returning from Warren's soccer team thwstate title last fall. | SUN-TIMES MEDIA FILE PHOTO

Rafa Macias is one of the key pieces returning from Warren's soccer team that won a state title last fall. | SUN-TIMES MEDIA FILE PHOTO

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Last Year: 21-5-3 (4-2 NSC Lake); defeated Naperville Central 2-1 OT in the IHSA 3A state championship.

Warren has had an incredible 43-10-6 two-year run that includes a state championship and a fourth-place finish.

Warren captured a conference championship in 2010, but didn’t win the North Suburban Conference’s Lake Division either of the last two years despite that amazing run (Lake Forest won in 2011 and Libertyville in 2012).

In fact, the Lake Division has sent four of its seven teams to the state’s final four over the last four years (Lake Zurich in 2009, Libertyville in 2010, Warren in 2011 and 2012, and Stevenson in 2012), and only Lake Zurich in 2009 won the division the year it made the trip.

Entering 2012, the Blue Devils had graduated their star keeper and all but one starter on the back line, but returned nearly all of their scoring from 2011. The holes were filled by capable younger players, and now the situation is completely reversed: the team returns its budding star keeper and all but one starter from the back line, but loses almost 90 percent of its scoring.

The Blue Devils graduated 80 goals and 65 assists (that works out to 2.76 goals and 2.24 assists per game), including their top six goal scorers and top five assist leaders.

OFFENSIVE STATISTICAL LEADERS (all graduated): M Daniel Szczepanek (13 goals 23 assists) (Marquette). F Auner Solis (22 goals 6 assists) (College of Lake County). M Tony Severini (7 goals 12 assists). M Nick Wegrzynowicz (14 goals 7 assists) (Eastern Illinois). M Sean Kirwan (5 goals 10 assists) (Eastern Illinois). D Timmy Pieper (8 goals 1 assist) (Eastern Illinois).

The returning leading goal scorer is junior Nick Haas with 4 (also had 3 assists). Haas will move up to a center-midfield role with senior Rafa Macias, who is the returning assist leader with 4 (also scored 3 goals).

Also returning is 6-3 senior Karl Bappert (3 goals), a backline player who emerged as a weapon late in the year. His height will be invaluable on set pieces, especially in a year when Warren graduates a lot of the height advantage it had with Peiper in the back and Kirwan in the midfield.

Junior Chris Travis and senior Elijah Parker are returning starters who will anchor the back line. Both of them were effective at getting the ball up onto the foot of offensive playmakers last year.

The budding star in net is 6-3 junior R.J. Hill. He made 120 saves and allowed 18 goals in 21 games (0.86 GAA) last year as a sophomore. He split regular-season minutes with now-graduated Nick Hathuc before taking over the starting role in the postseason. Hill matured tremendously over the course of last season, not only in terms of his skill set but in directing traffic in the back.

Defense might win championships, but a sustained run also requires putting the ball in the back of the net. Warren will rely on a number of young players to generate scoring, and how quickly they adjust to the varsity level will play a significant role in where the team ends up at the end of the year.

It seems likely many will write off the Blue Devils in 2013 because of the graduation losses, so for those tempted to look ahead: Hill, Travis, and Haas are only juniors so the cycle of returning/graduating literally half the field should be broken in 2014.

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Updated: September 1, 2013 6:06AM

There is a radar screen that blankets Illinois each fall and monitors the high school boys soccer programs from every town in every corner of the state.

Yet somehow, every year, it seems as though soccer at Warren High School in Gurnee manages to fly under the radar.

Consider that in 2011, while the rest of the state wasn’t watching, the Blue Devils were finishing fourth in the state playoffs and bringing a trophy home from the state tournament. Lack of firepower was given as the reason for the lack of respect.

Consider that in 2012, while the rest of the state wasn’t watching, the Blue Devils were stunning previously unbeaten Naperville Central in overtime to become the first Lake County school to ever win the state championship. Lack of defense and quality keeping was given as the reason for the lack of respect.

And now, as we inch closer to the 2013 season, that buzz of excitement you don’t hear is what people aren’t saying about Warren varsity’s summer workouts.

So, what exactly are the sounds of silence saying about Warren soccer in 2013?

In six words: Don’t go to sleep on them.

■ Karl Bappert, a 6-3 senior back, who contributed as a scorer off of set pieces at the end of last year: “We have a lot of young talent coming up that I think a lot of people are going to overlook because of all the players we lost. We have guys who are going to step in and play a big part in our offense this year.”

■ Rafi Macias (3 goals, 4 assists in 2012): Just last year, I know people looked down on us and said we couldn’t (make another playoff run) because of the guys we lost. We kept quiet and showed them wrong.”

What the Blue Devils will show in 2013 most likely is that they aren’t going to surrender their state championship without an all-out battle.

“Each class is different. Everybody graduates players, and it’s going to be a different team” said veteran coach Jason Ahonen. “It was a different team in ’11 than it was in ’12, and it’s going to be a different team this year.

“We’re not going to push for leadership. Leaders will step forward. Where leadership really matters is when you have struggles. When you have that bad stretch, you can continue that stretch or you can work together to fix it. Last year, we went 3-3-3 down the stretch, and people were counting us out, but we knew, in our minds, that we could get things done.

“As long as you have that common goal, whatever it is, if you have the guys who can get everyone on the same page, it’s remarkable what you can do.”

Of course, it helps to have quality players, and it appears there are plenty of those around. Household names? Not yet, but it’s only July.

The best way to look at Warren soccer is this: In 2011, the team won while defensive-oriented. Last year, the team won with a high-powered offense. This year, the pendulum will swing back to defense, where 6-3 goalie R.J. Hill is an anchor.

“R.J. split time with Nick Hathuc last year until the playoffs when he started all the games,” said Ahonen. “At one point, we had to make a decision and we decided to go with R.J. because his height and his size added another dimension.

“You have to remember, he was 14-15 years old last year as a sophomore stepping up in a state championship game. I think he’s set to make another huge stride.”

He’ll also be surrounded by familiar players, as that is where the core of returnees plays.

“Last year, we replaced our keeper and entire back line except for Timmy Pieper, but returned essentially the entire midfield and front line. The concern coming into the season was whether we could stop teams from scoring. The situation is completely reversed this year,” the coach said.

“The old adage is that ‘defense wins championships’ and we return a lot of guys from that. I’m not worried about giving up goals this year. I’m worried about how many goals we’re going to score.

“It’s exactly the opposite of last year. When you lose that much scoring off of last year’s team, you have to try to find it in different places. We have some sophomores who played very well on the freshman team last year, and some juniors who played well on the sophomore team. We’re excited about what we have. Our freshmen team lost one game last year and was very offensively-inclined. With the success we’ve had at the lower levels, I’m confident that we’ll be able to put a very good product on the field again this year.”

Ahonen always holds his 10-day summer OTA at the very end of the summer so that his players have a clear schedule to play with their clubs. Then, it’s 10 days off (IHSA-mandated “dark” time), and then practice starts for real in mid-August.

“Really, our strength right now is going to be our back line with Karl (Bappert), Elijah Parker, Chris Travis, and R.J. Hill in the net, as well as with Rafa, Nick Haas in the midfield and Mikey Cain, who saw a lot of time at the varsity level,” Ahonen said.

“The guys who played for us last year, with the training and the atmosphere and playing on such a big stage, they’re well-prepared. Everybody has been very focused from Day 1. I’m very happy with the way they came in, and the shape they’re in. I’m excited to get the season started.”

And so, too, are the players. “We’re friends off the field and hang out together during the school year. Even though we have some new faces (on the varsity team), we get along and work well together,” said Haas.

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