The New Richmond boys soccer team is headed back to the WIAA sectional tournament.

The Tigers qualified for the Division 2 sectional tournament with a tense 2-0 win over Holmen in the regional final at the New Richmond High School field on Saturday. The Tigers will face Onalaska in the sectional semifinal at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Onalaska. Onalaska gets the home game because it is the top seed in the region, with New Richmond being the second seed. The winner of Thursday’s game will advance to the sectional championship game, which will be played on Saturday, Nov. 2, in New Richmond, the pre-determined site for the sectional final.

Onalaska also had a tense regional final, beating River Falls in a shootout to advance.

The Tigers and Holmen battled scoreless for more than 70 minutes of Saturday’s game. This was an intense, physical battle, with two Tigers knocked out of the game with leg injuries.

The Tigers finally scored at the start of the 74th minute. Jovani Perez-Sanchez got the ball on the offensive side of midfield and took a few strides forward with the ball, drawing defenders to him. He slotted a pass forward to Tiger leading scorer AJ Johnson. Johnson was crowded by defenders, but was able to turn to face the goal. In less than a heartbeat, Johnson’s shot was gone, scooting low past the Holmen keeper.

“The best player on the field ended up with the ball at his feet,” Tiger coach Darian Blattner said. “The work was to put him in a position to create.”

The Tigers scored again in the 87th minute. Johnson was fouled near the goal and he buried the penalty kick in the back of the net.

Both teams played a guarded, defensive approach, but both were able to come up with a few quality scoring chances. Each time Holmen got a chance, Tiger keeper Carter Melby came up with a big stop.

“Oh man, he had to be on top of his game,” Blattner said. “The ones they had were quality chances. When he’s on, the can be athletic and acrobatic.”

Holmen was the defending sectional champion, having beaten the Tigers 2-1 in the sectional semifinals a year ago. This will be the fourth straight season that New Richmond has reached the sectional level. The Tigers were sectional champions in 2016 and 2017, making the first appearances at the WIAA state championships in the program’s history.

Win over Holmen

Johnson is unquestionably the best soccer player ever to lace up cleats for New Richmond High School. On Tuesday, he played one of his best games.

Johnson accounted for five goals and three assists in leading New Richmond to a 9-0 win over Tomah in the opening round of the WIAA Division 2 soccer regionals.

Blattner said there aren’t complete totals on some team records, but he said the 13 points earned by Johnson Tuesday has to rank among the highest point totals ever amassed by a Tiger. Johnson holds nearly all of the Tiger career scoring records that has been compiled.

There was an incredible wind blowing across the New Richmond High School field and it was a definite factor in the early action. It took the Tigers about 10 minutes to see how the wind was affecting play. The Tigers then took charge by scoring four goals in less than six minutes.

The Tigers learned they had to keep the ball low and that led directly to the first goal. Michael Benedict rolled a long lead pass down the center of the field and Johnson chased down the ball, slotting his shot into the far corner of the net. Less than a minute later, Jack Stuedemann scored from close range off a pass from Johnson.

Martin Stenske scored the third goal, knocking home a rebound off a Johnson shot. As the game hit the 20-minute mark, Johnson scored the fourth goal, chipping a shot over the reach of the charging Tomah keeper.

Johnson scored again 20 minutes later, 50 seconds before Benedict scored as Johnson slid a pass across the goal crease to him. Blattner said Benedict is one of the Tigers who has noticeably stepped up his play in recent games.

Johnson scored two more goals in the second half and Perez-Sanchez also scored.

The Tigers were able to play their reserves for most of the final 25 minutes of the game.

Blattner said this was one of the Tigers’ most complete games of the season. He said Johnson got the points, but Blattner had the opinion that all the Tigers raised their level of play to begin the playoffs.

“Everything seemed to be clicking. Even our reserves maintained a high level of play,” Blattner said.