North Park's Vikings (12-2-4) and the Thunder (15-3-2) have faced off in three previous championship contests — 2004, 2005 and 2010 — with North Park emerging victorious each time.
"Let's say we feel cautiously optimistic," said head coach John Born, who doubles as the school's associate athletic director. "I think we're a bit of an underdog."
For North Park, the road to the tournament final proved particularly satisfying as the Vikings exacted revenge in the semifinals against Carthage, which bested them 3-2 in overtime to claim last year's championship.
Saturday's match, set for 7 p.m. on Wheaton's campus, promises to be a clash of the titans. The #1-seeded Wheaton and the #2-seeded North Park have dominated tournament conference play for the past decade, with one or the other capturing the CCIW crown 9 out of the last 10 years.
Calling the Thunder "clearly the dynasty of the '80s and '90s," Born was handed one goal when he took over the team 14 years ago — beat Wheaton.
"We've done a good job of being able to play with them," he said.
In recent years, Born has bolstered his squad with recruits from Sweden, a natural fit at North Park, which was founded by Swedes and still takes pride in its Scandinavian roots (hence the nickname Vikings). The Europeans have made a significant contribution to the success of North Park soccer — Mike Herbst of Sweden booted the game-winning goal against Carthage.
As North Park has gained ground against Wheaton, fans have responded to the rivalry with enthusiasm.
"Our school last year outdrew Michigan State," Born said, adding that North Park's attendance is on par with Division I schools. Nearly 3,000 ticket holders jammed North Park's stadium during this year's regular season match against the Thunder.
No matter the outcome of Saturday's match, Born is convinced both squads will be able to declare victory by snagging a spot in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
"I wouldn't say we're a lock," said Born, hedging his bets.
Make that cautiously optimistic.