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Maroons claim regional title

May 18—URBANA — Champaign Central's girls' soccer team is used to playing on the big stage.

That was evident during the Maroons' 3-1 win against Centennial on Friday night at McKinley Field, which gave the program its second Class 2A regional title in the last three seasons — and third trip to sectionals in the last four (the IHSA did not award regional championships in COVID-altered 2021 season).

"I'm just really happy we were able to win after not being able to pull it out last year," Central senior Cricket Wagner said. "It's always fun to play Centennial too because they're our rivals and they're our friends, but beating them was even better."

Even the Maroons' newcomers were eager to step up and make an impact.

Following a two-goal performance in the regional semifinal against Danville on May 14, freshman Rylie Schulze carded the Maroons' first two goals to make the difference against the Chargers.

"Honestly I think it was just my teammates finding me at the right moments," Schulze said. "And making perfect passes right to me, allowing me to have the chance to score. They worked hard for it."

Schulze — among the program's leading scorers — has played a role in the Maroons' success throughout her first high school season.

"What can't she do on the field?" Central coach Steve Whiteley said. "In terms of position-wise, she's just kind of an engine that never stops. ... (Her teammates) provide the opportunity for us to get opportunities."

Schulze's first goal came via a 25-yard free kick with 24:30 remaining in the first half.

It followed a physical first 15 minutes of play; Central senior Sophia Adams collided with Centennial keeper Kate Pitcher and forced backup goalie Sam Doughty to enter the game just five minutes after it started.

"Sam had never played a varsity game of keeper," Centennial coach Thair Al-Saqri said. "We didn't have a backup, essentially, so she took the field and really stepped up for us there ... Central played really well. They're a very physical team."

Doughty put forth a valiant effort in her debut, tallying 16 saves to keep the Chargers within striking distance for the duration of their second consecutive regional final appearance.

But Schulze's second goal came three minutes into the second half to help put the game out of reach.

"I think after her second goal, she had so many chances before that too and Sophia Adams had a lot of chances right around that time, that's when we started breaking them down a little bit," Wagner said.

Alicia Fernandez responded some two minutes later with a penalty kick that was set up by a hand ball to cut the Chargers' deficit to 2-1.

"It was setting up for a pretty good finish," Al-Saqri said. "I moved some things around ... made a couple of subs and was hoping that would work out for us. Unfortunately (Central) got that third one and that kind of put us on our heels."

Wagner — playing in her fourth regional championship game — added the Maroons' third and final goal with 25:28 remaining in the contest to punch Central's ticket to a sectional semifinal game against either Pleasant Plains or Rochester.

"We're going into it like we're the underdog, which personally I love," Wagner said. "I love playing with the underdog mentality because I think we play up."

Maya McCaffrey played a role in several of the Maroons' scoring chances with her unique end-over-end throw-in attempts that collected the attention of the Chargers' defense whenever the Maroons advanced near the net.

They happened often enough in a contest the Maroons' offense controlled from wire to wire.

"I normally am looking out for Cricket's head or Rylie's feet," McCaffrey said. "I'm just looking for them, throwing it in the box right at the goal and hoping someone will score."

A healthy crowd made its way from Champaign to Urbana to watch the Maroons chase their first regional championship since 2022 and the Chargers attempt to claim their first since 2016.

"Especially knowing the other team because we're close, it was just really exciting and fun to have so many people watch soccer," McCaffrey said.

Rochester and Pleasant Plains will meet at 11 a.m. Saturday to determine the Maroons' next opponent.

Pleasant Plains will host that meeting, which will be the Maroons' first game of the season against either team.

"We're going to train on Monday and hopefully get a result on Tuesday," Schulze said. "No matter who we play, we know it's going to be a hard game, and we're hoping for the best."