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From underdogs to champions

Members of the River Falls U16 traveling girls' soccer team celebrate after defeating Eden Prairie, Minn., 1-0, in the semifinals of the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association Tournament last week in Coon Rapids. The team went on to win the state title by defeating undefeated Hastings, 1-0, in the championship game. Submitted photo

The River Falls Wildcat U16 girls' traveling soccer team became state champions at the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association (MYSA) Tournament last week in Coon Rapids.

Back in early June, the Cats' season had an uninspired start with a loss to Rochester, Minn. But they made progress during the season to finish in the middle of the East District pack with a 4-2-2 record.

River Falls' post season odyssey started on a muggy June 19 afternoon with the East District playoff game against New Richmond. The teams battled to a scoreless tie after 80 minutes of regulation play. But seven minutes into overtime, midfielder Katie Berndt made a smart pass into the box to forward Mariah Kaiser, who sent a smashing strike into the back of the net. The team erupted and the magic carpet ride began.

Next up was the Regional Championship game against the Richfield Roadrunners in Shakopee, Minn. Kaiser scored the first goal in the 14th minute on a low strike to the corner. In the 32nd minute Alison Conley made a deep cross that striker Brenna Swanson one-timed into the net. The final score was 2-0 and the girls punched their ticket to the big show at the Coon Rapids Soccer Complex.

First up in the State Tournament was the North District No. 1 team, the North Metro Lightning, who entered with a record of 7-1-0. River Falls struck early in the second minute when midfielder Roxie Fusilier tapped in a left footer off a soaring corner kick by Swanson.

The Wildcat offense exploded in the second half when Conley and Kaiser each scored. Conley later tallied another goal with a beautiful far post deflection.

Eden Prairie, the West District's No. 1 team with a record of 10-2-1 and averaging over three goals per game, was up next. The Wildcat defense, with midfielders Alice Cranston and Emma Huset, fullbacks Sandra Meyer, Chloe Hansen and Haley Hetchler, and anchored by goalkeeper Paige Meyer, was smothering.

The match was scoreless until the 69th minute when Huset launched a bold shot from near the penalty arc that found the upper corner of the goal, earning the Cats a spot in the championship match.

River Falls faced East District powerhouse Hastings, Minn., undefeated in league and post season play with a record of 8-0-2, in the title match. The game was scoreless until the 30th minute, when Swanson and Kaiser combined on a series of passes and Swanson fired a rocket from outside the corner of the box that arched between the crossbar and the outstretched fingertips of the leaping goalkeeper.

After a long, tense second half under the lights that saw Hastings mount a series of desperate attacks, only to be turned away by the River Falls' defense each time, the referee blew the whistle, the game ended, and the celebrations started.

"Each and every one of the girls contributed to our team's success." said coach Joe Fusilier. "The magic of a team is achieving things none of us could do individually, and having fun doing it. This is a nice group of young ladies that have come together over the years and support each other in the good times and bad. They played their hearts out this summer and we're all very proud of them."

The Cats were underdogs throughout the tournament and faced all first place teams with direct byes to state. Defense was a big factor in the team's success as it didn't allow a goal in five games on its way to the title.