Central, Centennial show both sides of rivalry: 'We're all one big soccer family'

Apr. 16—CHAMPAIGN — The Champaign Central and Centennial girls' soccer teams arrived at Demirjian Park around the same time Sunday afternoon.

They walked to the practice field together during a break in the action of the Monticello-Urbana game before theirs. It was the second-annual C-U Girls' Soccer Showcase, so all the crosstown rivals were there.

Some of the Maroons and Chargers waiting on deck watched part of the game going on, rooting for the Tigers. All the while, they chatted and cracked jokes with each other. Central senior Cricket Wagner playfully mentioned how she would have much rather played Thursday night — the original event date was postponed because of weather — for her 18th birthday and to avoid playing on the first 80-degree day of the season.

"We've all grown up together. Whether it's playing sports, going to school or just knowing them, you want the best for them," Wagner said of her local opponents. "Going against them, that's when it's like 'OK, family time is over.' You really just want the best for them. It is a family thing."

The pleasantries continued through warmups for the final game of the day between the Maroons and Chargers, and it was the same deal with the coaches. Central coach Steve Whiteley and Centennial coach Thair Al-Saqri laughed together before the game and shared an embrace during the pregame meeting.

But that's when the smiles turned into looks of determination. The gloves were about to come off. Al-Saqri rallied his troops with a "This is why we play!" and Wagner fired up her teammates with a "Let's go!" As soon as the clock started, there were no friends wearing different jerseys.

"It goes back many, many years. Everyone knows the rivalry," Al-Saqri said. "I played at Centennial, so I hate Central, and they hate us. It's just a love-hate relationship. All these girls know each other, and they're chirping back and forth. That's what brings the intensity to the rivalry. They're friends outside of this, and it's really nice to see these girls come together and show why this rivalry is important."

After the opening 40 minutes, however, the competition was lacking. Central took a 3-0 lead into halftime thanks to a pair of goals from freshman Rylie Schulze and one from Wagner. But the Maroons knew all too well that the game was far from over.

"Very rarely is Central-Centennial a blowout," Whiteley said. "Even when you get up three goals, in the back of your mind, you know you're going to get their best shot. Whatever they have left, they're going to give it to you."

And that's exactly what happened. Not even four minutes into the second half, Centennial made it a 3-2 game with early goals from freshman Alicia Fernandez and junior Payton Kaiser.

Schulze made it 4-2 with her hat trick-clinching goal in the 59th minute, prompting "She's a freshman" chants from the Central crowd. Fernandez cut the deficit to one again in the 76th minute, causing the Centennial faithful to start spelling "C-H-A-R-G-E-R-S" and making for a "wild" last few minutes of action. The Maroons were able to hold on and walked away with a 4-3 win.

"The fans bring a lot of intensity and want to win that crosstown rivalry game and want to be able to say we're the best girls' soccer team in Champaign," Wagner said. "You want that, so we all knew, going into the second half up 3-0, it wasn't going to be easy. We both wanted it. Luckily, we just wanted it more."

Schulze got Central's Player of the Game honor, which didn't come as a surprise and hasn't all season. She said she came into her freshman season looking forward to experiencing the team atmosphere, and she's filled the role of one of the Maroons' top goal scorers, which is ironic because her primary position is defense.

"I am a true center back," Schulze said with a laugh as Wagner joked that the freshman could take her spot. "It's nice that I fit in as well as I did to the starting 11. I love scoring goals, and I trust Cricket and Maya (McCaffrey) in the back. I'm glad I could step up and score some goals for us."

Whiteley said he expects Schulze to keep raising the bar. The defender-turned-goal-scorer has paced the Maroons' offense to this point, leading them to a 6-3 record and the No. 1 ranking in the first News-Gazette top five of the season.

"She's going to be a star," Wagner said of Schulze. "Having her on the field is one of the biggest blessings we've had. Just knowing you have a consistent player who's a great teammate and can find the back of the net is really great. I think I can say for everyone that we're just really happy to have her."

As the clock hit zeros and the teams went through the postgame handshake line, everyone was friends again. The players went back to talking and laughing together, no matter the jersey, and Whiteley and Al-Saqri hugged it out once more.

"That's why we did this whole showcase," Al-Saqri said. "We wanted to show everyone that, even though we're all rivals, we're all one big soccer family. We're building something special here for the girls with the family aspect."

Whiteley felt the same way, adding that an event like this at Illinois' home facility is perfect to show off the girls' soccer talent in C-U.

"We don't want Centennial or Urbana to win games, but at the same time, we want the quality of competition in this area to rise," Whiteley said with a smile. "For that to happen, every program in this area needs to be successful. When little kids see this and the success of high school teams, whether it's us, Centennial or Urbana, it inspires a lot of kids to continue with soccer or try out for soccer. ... We need games like this, and we need the competition."