GRAYSLAKE – Crystal Lake Central sophomore forward Lizzie Gray didn’t have time to think, so she just reacted.
Gridlocked in a physically punishing scoreless tie against Lake Forest with less than four minutes left in Tuesday’s Class 2A Grayslake Central Supersectional, opportunity knocked.
Her older sister and teammate, junior midfielder Maddie Gray, lined up a free kick from the right side of the field, about 25 yards away from the Scouts’ goal.
The looping ball hooked hard left, then found Lizzie Gray, who deflected the ball toward the net. But Lake Forest goalkeeper Sarah Constantine made a spectacular, two-handed diving stop to her right.
Constantine left a rebound, which Lizzie Gray pounced on, then buried, with her momentum actually carrying her inside the Scouts’ net.
It wound up being the game-winner in a thrilling 1-0 shutout, sending the Tigers (18-3) to state for the first time in program history.
Crystal Lake Central will face Benet Academy in a 2A state semifinal at 1 p.m. Friday at North Central College in Naperville.
“We don’t just want to show up and play in Friday’s semifinal. We want Saturday. We want that title match.”— Shaylee Gough, Crystal Lake Central junior
With adrenaline still coursing through her veins some 15 minutes after her goal, Lizzie Gray pondered what she’d just done.
“The ball was half over the line on her initial save,” she said. “But [Constantine] didn’t secure it. I wasn’t going to let an opportunity like that go to waste.
“I just instinctively finished it. Then, everyone was going crazy. And you still need to keep your composure, because at that point, there’s still [3:45] left on the clock.”
Her older sister tried a slightly different approach on her free kick, since the No. 1-seeded Tigers were 0 for 5 on corner kicks at that point.
“I tried to put a little less on it,” Maddie Gray said. “We were overkicking a lot of our earlier chances, so I wanted to ensure I was putting the ball where someone at least had a chance at it.”
Her mood then briefly turned lighthearted.
“It’s gonna be an interesting ride home [with Lizzie],” Maddie Gray said. “But I couldn’t be happier for my younger sister. She sent us all to state! This is unbelievable!”
There were some pulse-pounding moments along the way.
Five minutes into the second half, Scouts senior forward Maeve Bradley was 1 on 1 with Tigers junior goalkeeper Addison Cleary (5 saves) on a clear breakaway.
Just as Bradley uncorked her shot, Cleary aggressively raced to the top of the goalie box, cutting off Bradley’s angle. Cleary then slid feet first as Bradley’s shot ricocheted off Cleary’s shoes for a nerve-racking save, preserving a scoreless tie at the time.
With seven minutes left in regulation, No. 4-seeded Lake Forest appeared it would have another breakaway.
But Tigers junior defenseman Chelsea Iles furiously hustled back into the play up the right sideline, making up several yards in the process. It prevented a golden scoring opportunity.
“I had no choice,” Iles said. “That’s our entire season on the line right there. Not getting back simply wasn’t an option.”
It also did not go unnoticed by her coach, Sarah Fack.
“There was no margin for error in this game,” Fack said. “So when you see someone recover the way she did, or when you see each and every one of these girls make a brilliant hustle play, or give it their all ... it’s validation.
“It’s validation that all their hard work finally paid off. It’s validation that they trusted each other. There are just so many life lessons here.”
Especially since the Tigers were playing with a chip in their collective shoulders after losing in a sectional final last season.
They used that loss as fuel for their 2023 fire.
“We don’t just want to show up and play in Friday’s semifinal,” Tigers junior defenseman Shaylee Gough said. “We want Saturday. We want that title match. So we can’t stop now. We need to bring this exact same effort with us [to Naperville] this weekend.”
Remarkably, the Tigers had only one senior in their starting lineup Tuesday – midfielder Katie Barth. The two others are Gwyn Brickey and Olivia Madalinski.
“We just saw ‘Gray sister magic’ out there on that field,” Barth said, laughing. “I graduated yesterday. So this is the best graduation present ever. This, and every time I get to step on the field at state for two more days. Hats off to Lake Forest, too. They played an incredible game.”