Boys Soccer: Lincoln-Way Central downs Lincoln-Way East in sectional semiLincoln-Way Central's Alivin Landaverde (left) goes after the ball with teammate Nick Kowalkowski and Lincoln-Way East's Conor Hughes during their sectional semi-final game in New Lenox Wednesday, October 23, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 24, 2012 10:01PM
After a disappointing regular season, Lincoln-Way Central defender Jeff Neukom says the Knights have become “a new team” in the playoffs.
Wednesday, the new-look Knights continued their unlikely postseason run.
C.J. Zuraitis scored the only goal on a penalty kick as Central topped rival Lincoln-Way East 1-0 in a Class 3A Lincoln-Way Central Sectional semifinal.
“I wish we could have played like this the whole season, but I guess playoffs just brought out the best in us,” Zuraitis said. “This feels great, especially beating East.”
The Knights will meet Sandburg in the final set for 3 p.m. Saturday. The Griffins closed one of the best seasons in school history at 15-3-6.
Mike Dybala had four saves in the shutout for Central.
Zuraitis got his chance 27 minutes in. A corner kick for Central (11-10-2) led to a Ryan Fremgen shot that was blocked by an East defender, who was called for a handball in the box.
Zuraitis blasted a low liner on the penalty kick past East goalie Sean McGovern.
“I was so ready to take it,” Zuraitis said. “I just stepped up and shot and it went exactly where I wanted it to be.”
The goal was the reward for the Knights who, with a strong wind at their backs, dominated the first half.
Zuraitis was at the forefront of the attack, sending a shot just wide and having another shot saved before breaking through with the goal.
“There was a 20-minute period there in the first half where we just panicked,” East coach Ryan Decker said. “And they end up getting a corner and a penalty. I didn’t necessarily enjoy the call for the penalty kick, but it is what it is. We played well the rest of the way.”
The Griffins spent virtually the entire second half in their offensive third, but could not score as they came up empty on nine corner kicks in the match, as well as seven second-half free kicks from striking distance.
“We just didn’t take care of our set pieces like we normally do,” Decker said. “We normally put those away.”
The Griffins created strong chances early in the half as Sean Sibley put a diving shot off a free kick just wide and Austin Jenig had a long shot saved by Dybala.
Dybala continually shut down East opportunities by beating the Griffins to balls in the box.
“This was the best defense we’ve played all year,” Dybala said. “We take it to another level against East.”
Dybala got plenty of help from a backline anchored by Neukom, Freddie Bartuch and Jacob Lysik.
“We knew East was good in the air and we just focused on shutting that down,” Neukom said. “We just had to do the little things, stay on our marks and play with heart.”
The Griffins nearly tied it on several occasions in the final 10 minutes. Michael Roth had a shot saved and Sibley fired high on a pair of chances.
The loss ended a season that saw East win a conference title for the first time.
“Soccer can be a cruel game and sometimes it’s better to have a little luck on your side,” Decker said.
“We haven’t had this good of a season in a long time. We broke a lot of records. Our senior leadership was excellent. I can’t say enough about all our seniors.”
Central will try to avenge a 4-1 Sept. 20 loss to Sandburg.
“We know in the playoffs that one loss and we’re out,” Dybala said. “We’ve picked up our play and we’re not going to go down easy.”