Wildcat soccer kicking into high gear
Not many teams have eight all-conference players in one season. And even fewer get seven of those players back the next year.
But that's the situation for the Wildcat girls soccer team, who finished third in the eight-team Big Rivers Conference and won its fourth straight Division 2 regional title a year ago.
The Wildcats lost just two seniors from last year's squad, and head coach Charles Conley said the returners, along with a talented crop of freshman, have the Cats aiming high this season.
"Absolutely," Conley said about the team's expectations. "Our senior class this year, and a lot of our juniors too, have been playing varsity since they were freshmen. So we're thinking this is probably the best chance we've had since we won conference in 2013."
River Falls has finished third or better in the BRC in six of the last eight years while posting conference titles in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Of the Wildcats' 37 losses over the past seven years, over half have come against fellow BRC powers Eau Claire Memorial and Hudson. The Cats have also reached six of the last eight sectional title games, three at the Division 1 level, while making their only state tournament appearance in Division 1 in 2011.
"At a small school those runs will come in cycles," Conley noted. "We are hoping to build another similar run here over the next few seasons."
River Falls returns a pair of first team All-BRC players from last year's 15-5-1 team in midfielder Gina Filkins and defender Jacqueline Balsiger, two of the team's six seniors. Filkins recorded 11 goals and 14 assists a year ago while Balsiger is a four-year starter at center back.
Junior midfielder Mariah Marg is back after earning second team all-conference honors a year ago while junior forward Sydney DeBroux was All-BRC honorable mention despite leading the Wildcats in scoring with 20 goals and 10 assists. Senior forward Leanna Becker also returns after registering 16 goals and 8 assists in 2017, and sophomore midfielder/forward Mady Shew is back after receiving all-conference honorable mention last year along with senior goalkeeper Kiera LaCroix, who recorded 15 shutouts with a 0.50 goals against average.
Conley said that experience, along with an influx of talented underclassmen, will pay dividends this year.
"Sydney had 20 goals last year as a sophomore," he noted. "We're hoping to add five or ten to that total. "Gina Filkins is one of the most technically sound players in the conference, skill-wise. And we bring in some freshmen that are going to have an impact. This group is hungry, very driven. I saw the girls working in the weight room in the fall, and since then they've been excited and eager to get after it."
After winning the regional title last year, the Wildcats dominated New Richmond in the sectional semi final, only to see the Tigers score two late goals to advance. Conley said the loss left a bad taste in the Cats' mouths.
"The message this spring has been, every time we take the field it's an opportunity to get better," he said. "But we have to work on just playing hard the entire game and putting away our opportunities, because we had so many games last year where if we had just buried one more it was over. So in the final 10 minutes we're not worried about them coming back and overtaking us at the end."
In addition to playing in the always tough Big Rivers Conference, Conley has also loaded up the Wildcats' nonconference schedule, including a tournament in Brookfield against Division 1 opponents.
"We have the two section teams—New Richmond and Onalaska—and then Green Bay Preble, Fond du Lac, Middleton, who is number seven in the state in Division 1," he said. "Ideally, when we get to playoffs we will have played such high caliber teams that playing somebody we don't know who has some skill, hopefully won't affect us."
The Wildcats will face a tough challenge right off the bat in their season opener against last year's BRC runner-up Hudson Tuesday, April 10, at home. Complicating matters is the fact that the Wildcats have been practicing inside all spring while the Raiders have been outside on their new artificial turf field since March 23.
"That first Hudson game is going to be tough because I don't know when we're going to be able to get outside," Conley noted. "The biggest thing we battle (inside) is, we want to get in shape but we don't want to end up battling shin splints because we're working them too hard. Hopefully that referendum goes through on April 3. Then it would be cold out, but we wouldn't have to be dealing with the puddles and the mud."
One thing the Wildcats can control is their attitude, and Conley said it's sky high for the upcoming season.
"I think the biggest thing this group has that they didn't have last year is confidence," he noted. "We can take the field and at least compete with anybody. One through 11, we're solid."