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Emma Russell, Naperville Central edge North

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Naperville Central junior forward Emma Russell knows the right place to be seemingly all the time.

That’s especially true when it comes to corner kicks.

Russell put that knack to work against crosstown rival Naperville North on Wednesday.

“I’m always the person that kind of drops back to the end to pick up anything that goes over,” Russell said. “My job is usually to head it back across to someone who can finish it.

“But I started noticing in the first half that I would back up and be completely open. So I told Emerson (Burke) at the half, ‘If you can find me on the back post, I’m wide open.’”

Burke did exactly that. She sent two corner kicks from the right side to Russell, who volleyed both balls into the net.

Russell’s first goal tied the game and the second one was the winner as the seventh-seeded Redhawks stunned the third-seeded Huskies 2-1 in the Class 3A Plainfield North Sectional semifinals.

Naperville Central (13-5-1) will take an eight-game unbeaten streak into the sectional final against fourth-seeded Plainfield North (22-2-1), which upset top-ranked and previously unbeaten and untied Lockport 2-1 in the other semifinal, at 4:30 p.m. Friday.

This is Naperville Central’s first victory over the Huskies since 2012 and first against them in a playoff game since 2010.

“With these two schools, I don’t think you’d expect anything less,” Naperville Central coach Troy Adams said. “That North team is extraordinarily talented. They work their tails off, and the first half I thought they were better than us. Luckily in the second half, we matched their work rate, and it allowed us to have a lot more success.”

Naperville Central's Eleanor Kane (5) competes for the ball with Naperville North's Claire DeCook (22) during the Class 3A Plainfield North Sectional semifinal game in Plainfield on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (Troy Stolt/for the Naperville Sun)
Naperville North’s Claire DeCook (22) and Naperville Central’s Eleanor Kane (5) race for the ball during a Class 3A Plainfield North Sectional semifinal in Plainfield on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (Troy Stolt / Naperville Sun)

The Huskies (13-6-4) took a 1-0 lead on Claire DeCook’s long-distance shot at the 17:07 mark of the first half. But the Redhawks were finally able to exploit the weakness Russell noticed to tie it with 21:53 left in the second half.

Naperville North goalkeeper Olivia Ochsner had just made a tremendous save on Bella Brozek’s 30-yard rocket, leaping high to tip it over the crossbar. But Burke whipped the ensuing corner kick to the unmarked Russell, who lofted her volley over Ochsner’s head and into the net.

Ten minutes later, they did it again. This time, Russell’s volley was a bit weaker, but it still got over everyone’s heads.

“They were the exact same goal,” Russell said. “They went into the exact same spot. … The second time, I was like, ‘It’s not going to happen,’ you know what I’m saying? But fine by me.”

It was fine by Adams too.

“Emma’s done a really good job of being disciplined, knowing where she needs to be, and the second thing she’s improved on a lot is that composure,” Adams said. “We’ve talked a lot about you only have to hit it hard enough to get it by the goalie. There’s no bonus to ripping the ball and taking off a piece of net.”

Naperville Central's Emma Russell (13) crosses the ball during the Class 3A Plainfield North Sectional semifinal game against Naperville North in Plainfield on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (Troy Stolt/for the Naperville Sun)
Naperville Central’s Emma Russell, right, crosses the ball during a Class 3A Plainfield North Sectional semifinal against Naperville North in Plainfield on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (Troy Stolt / Naperville Sun)

Russell heeded that advice, especially on her second goal.

“It was kind of a slower-moving pace,” Russell said. “A rocket I was scared was going to go over, so I slightly tapped it, and it floated over her head. I didn’t think it went in, and then everyone started running at me. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’”

There were several such moments. Three minutes before Russell’s second goal, DeCook barely missed regaining the lead for Naperville North when she struck the right post on a breakaway.

The Huskies nearly sent the game to overtime, but Addison Sitzman’s 25-yard rocket whizzed inches over the crossbar with four seconds left.

“Obviously, I was so happy at the end of it,” Russell said. “I was waiting for that clock to tick down. I was really out of breath. I was tired, but I knew I needed to keep pushing.”

Naperville Central's Emerson Burke (20) makes a pass during the Class 3A Plainfield North Sectional semifinal game against Naperville North in Plainfield on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (Troy Stolt/for the Naperville Sun)
Naperville Central’s Emerson Burke (20) passes the ball during a Class 3A Plainfield North Sectional semifinal against Naperville North in Plainfield on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (Troy Stolt / Naperville Sun)

The Redhawks know what to do if Russell isn’t guarded on corner kicks.

“She’s meant to hit it back into the box, which is exactly what she did,” Burke said. “After the first one, I was like, ‘If they’re not going to guard her, I’m going to find her on that every time.’”

Much to the Redhawks’ delight, that’s exactly what happened.

“They absolutely did not guard me at all,” Russell said. “I’m surprised they did it the second time. I would be so upset if a team scored the exact same goal on us twice, especially in a game like this.”

Matt Le Cren is a freelance reporter.



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