By Randy Whalen
This is the start.
When it all comes to fruition the Joliet Central boys soccer team will look back on these beginning moments. The Steelmen will realize that, while this season's group may not end up with a winning record, they were the ones that changed the culture and laid the groundwork for future student-athletes in the program.
"You can see the switch," Joliet Central center midfielder Ramon Zavala said. "Not only on the field but off the field as well. Last season at this point, a lot of guys were ineligible or had quit on us. Now, our grades are up and we've got guys that want to be there. We want to show we have what it takes and we are doing that."
Zavala, a senior, who has a 4.0 GPA, was on the team last year. That wasn't a good season for the Steelmen, as they finished 0-20-1.
Through Thursday, Sep. 21, Joliet Central was 3-7-2 this season, including a 1-4-1 record in the Southwest Prairie Conference. While that's not where the Steelmen want to be, it's an improvement. Plus, not only are the guys buying in, but they are staying with the team and working on keeping their grades up.
Those are all big things for first-year coach, Ulises Ornelas.
"We've told the boys that we've already done better than last year," Ornelas said. "But we don't want to set the bar low. Our losses have taught us a lot and we've made some mistakes. But it's OK, as long as we are learning from them."
That showed on the field this week. On Tuesday, Sept. 19, Joliet Central lost 8-1 to a very good Oswego East team in SPC play on the road. But two days later, on Thursday, Sept. 21, the Steelmen traveled to Yorkville for another SPC contest. There they tied 1-1.
Nicolas Garzon scored on an assist from fellow junior Juan Franco in the first half to stake the Steelmen to a halftime lead.
"We took a step forward again," Ornelas said. "Especially after losing big in the last two games."
The tie ended a three-game losing streak for Joliet Central, which also lost 2-0 at Minooka on Tuesday, Sept. 12, and 5-1 on Thursday, Sept. 14 at home to Plainfield East.
But Zavala, who has three goals and two assists so far on the season, saw the team's potential in the three-game stretch before that.
"We beat Plainfield South for our first home win," Zavala said of the 5-3 victory on Tuesday, Sept. 5. "We were at home at knew we wanted to win and did that. Those three games showed that we have what it takes to compete."
The second of those games was an impressive 5-0 home win on Thursday, Sept. 7 against Hinsdale South. But the most impressive of all might have been a 4-4 tie on Saturday, Sept. 9 against Lockport Township at home.
The Porters are a program that placed third in the state in Class 3A just two years ago.
"To tie Lockport was very impressive," Zavala said. "But it was also a bit disappointing because we led late in the game."
"We were maybe a penalty away," he said of beating Lockport. "We committed a foul late and they scored with about 1:30 to play to tie it up. Still, it showed that we had what it takes."
The first Joliet Central win of the season and first victory since a 2-1 win over Plainfield Central on Oct. 7, 2021, came on Saturday, Aug. 26 in a 4-0 win over Curie in a consolation game at the Reavis Windy City Ram Classic.
"I feel like we have a good shape," Zavala said of the team this season. "We know what we have and we are just trying to build on it. We want to attack better and that starts with the defense and goes up from there."
The Steelmen plan to keep going up.
"We had a team reflection meeting and talked about how the season is going," Ornelas said of a team meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 20. "It's important that the guys stay eligible. We need the guys to do it in the classroom too and they have. College coaches know there is talent here but the first thing that they want to see is the players' transcripts, his grades.
"On the field, we have some goals and look forward to getting better. We have the postseason coming up (starting in mid-October) and we believe we can surprise some people there."