Onalaska struck early, River Falls countered late, but in the end it was penalty kicks that decided the outcome of the WIAA Division 2 girls’ soccer sectional semifinal at David Smith Stadium in River Falls Thursday night, June 6.
The Hilltoppers scored on their only shot of the first half, 4 minutes, 22 seconds into the match, and the Wildcats got the equalizer in the 60th minute when Avery Usgaard’s shot dipped just under the crossbar. But after 90 minutes of regulation and two ten-minute overtimes, the game went to a penalty kick shootout where the second-seeded Hilltoppers outscored the top-seeded Wildcats 4-2 to earn the victory.
“It’s tough to know what to say to the girls in a situation like this,” River Falls’ coach Charles Conley said afterwards. “There’s nothing you can say that will make them feel any better. But it’s a great season when you make it to this point and we accomplished a lot of our goals.”
The Wildcat’s finished the season with a record of 13-6-3 and won their sixth regional championship while shattering the school record for total goals in a season with 109. But that was of little consolation to them Thursday night.
“It hurts for the girls,” Conley said. “But we bring back almost everybody so the future is bright. And you can’t take away what they did this season.”
Conley said the Wildcat’s youth may have been a factor early in the game when Onalaska took a quick 1-0 lead.
“We lacked a sense of urgency to start the game,” he said. “We have a lot of players who haven’t been here before, and a lot of girls where it’s just come easy for them. It’s hard for them to get up for a game like this when they really don’t know what it means.”
But it didn’t take long for them to figure it out. The Cats held the Hilltoppers without a shot the rest of the half while gradually generating chances of their own. Finally Usgaard sent a shot from the top of the box over the goalkeeper’s head and under the crossbar to tie the score 1-1.
River Falls continued to control play and had an opportunity when Lexy Szymanski found herself in front of a wide open net with about 10 minutes left in regulation but her shot sailed high. Less than two minutes later Szymanski one-timed a cross from her twin sister Lyndsey that was snuffed out by the Hilltopper goalkeeper.
Wildcat keeper Riley Nesbitt tipped a Hilltopper shot over the crossbar in the final minute to preserve the tie, and Mady Shew hit the football goal post above the net in the first overtime before Lexy Syzmanski’s run as time expired at the end of the second OT was deflected just wide.
Both teams scored on their first attempts in the shootout with Shew converting for River Falls, and Onalaska made its second attempt before River Falls’ Olivia Bell hit the post. Onalaska converted its third attempt and senior co-captain Ashley Nelson answered for the Wildcats, but after the Hilltoppers made it 4-for-4, Liv Nelson missed for the Cats to set off an Onalaska celebration at midfield.
“I’m kind of in shock,” Conley said. “I didn’t think we’d lose this game. Watching that second overtime and the number of chances we had, it just felt like it was going to happen. The girls usually put some of those balls in and I think they were pressing a little bit. One too many touches or just trying to a little too much.
“Of course I’m biased but I thought we outplayed them,” he added. “I thought we created the better chances. Their keeper made a couple of diving saves, but we just couldn’t get players in the right spots (for rebounds).”
For seniors Ashley Nelson, Aleah Nelson, Autumn Gray and Mara Parsons, it was their final match in a Wildcat uniform. But for the rest of the squad, including 14 freshmen and sophomores, Conley said he hopes it serves as motivation for next year.
“We lose some very good seniors but for the most part we bring everybody back,” he said. “This is kind of an eye-opener to those players. It’s going to be a long but quick 9 months, and it hurts for the seniors, but hopefully everybody else gets after it in the offseason and then next season they’ll be pretty motivated.”