PEORIA — Sammi Cenek helped Dunlap catch up to Notre Dame, and to history.
The senior midfielder notched a hat trick to lead a comeback for a 3-2 victory Friday over the host Irish in the Class 2A Notre Dame Sectional championship. The win gave Dunlap girls soccer its first sectional title
Cenek — much as she crashed the goal during the second half — charged with sectional championship plaque in hand toward her waiting teammates for a celebration of a team now in the state's final eight.
"I've got so many feelings about this right now, it's all just coming out," Cenek said while students raced onto the pitch to join the players in a happy mob at midfield. "We've waited so long for this. Worked so hard for this. This is for all the players who've been in the program, all the (alumnae) who helped build this, it's for my teammates, for Tessa (Sutton), for our coaches, our parents.
"I'm so proud of everyone out here. We took care of business."
Notre Dame got the jump when sophomore midfielder Parker Miller scored on a re-direct with 4:12 left in the first half.
"We're 40 minutes from the super-sectional," said Notre Dame coach Ben Ralph at halftime, imploring his team to stay on the proverbial gas pedal. "Leave it all on the field. If we have to carry you off the field, we will."
Instead, Cenek carried her team to glory, netting her first goal to tie the match less than eight minutes into the second half. About eight minutes later, with 25:16 left, she notched the game-winner from the left side. Then she made it 3-1 on a deflection with 14:47 left.
Notre Dame got one back on a free kick from Claire Girard inside the left post with 11:11 remaining.
"You can't imagine how this feels," Cenek said. "My dad is a great coach. At halftime, he really let us have it, kicked our butts and challenged us to play better. The (game-winner) came right to me on a free kick, and I could feel things (momentum) change."
"Dad" is Dunlap coach Peter Cenek, and he spent halftime lighting a fire under his team as it looked at a 1-0 deficit.
"I was really fired up," the coach said. "We didn't look like ourselves. It was difficult to watch. I told them we needed to get back to playing our game. They listened, and you could feel things shift on the field after that."
Notre Dame beat Dunlap 2-1 in this sectional title match last season. The Irish, however, finished 0-3-1 this season in matches against Washington, Morton and Dunlap — the other three Peoria-area powerhouses that were in this sectional.
Now it's Dunlap, for the first time ever, that advances to the super-sectional. The Eagles (19-2-3) will face Lisle Benet (20-4) at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Wheaton St. Francis.
When it ended Friday, the players mobbed each other at midfield, students rushed from the grandstand onto the pitch to join the celebration. The Dunlap players hoisted the championship plaque, embraced each other, posed for photos together.
It looked every bit the part of an historic moment for the school.
"Finally, we've won a sectional championship," coach Cenek said. "Finally. It's so huge for our program. This has been building for years. A lot of players over the years had a hand in getting us to this moment.
"This team is really special. They believed, and they got it done."
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men's basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.
This article originally appeared on Journal Star: IHSA girls soccer: Dunlap beats Notre Dame in Peoria Sectional final