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Girls Soccer: Freshmen stepping up for Cats

River Falls freshman Lexi Szymanski (5) beats Eau Claire North goalkeeper Alessa Eilts to a ball in the box in the first half of the Wildcat girls’ soccer team’s 6-0 win over the Huskies Tuesday, April 9, at Wildcat Field. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

Take a handful of upperclassmen with state tournament experience, throw in an extremely talented freshman class, and you’ve got a recipe for a very dangerous soccer team.

That’s the situation the River Falls girls’ team is in this season as it looks to make another run to the WIAA State Tournament.

After losing their first two games without a full complement of players during spring break, the Wildcats have rattled off three straight wins, including a 6-0 shutout of Eau Claire North in their Big Rivers Conference opener Tuesday, April 9.

And some new faces are making an immediate impact. Freshmen have accounted for 11 of the team’s 17 goals scored this season, including hat tricks by first-year players Liv Nelson and Lexi Szymanski, while freshman goalkeeper Reilly Nesbitt recorded her first career shutout Tuesday against Eau Claire North.

Wildcat head coach Charles Conley knows this freshman group well, having coached them in summer youth soccer the past three years, and said they haven’t even scratched the surface of what they are capable of yet.

“This freshmen group is the group I have worked with since they were 11,” Conley noted. “Once we gel as a group, there is a ton of skill there that will be good for the program.”

Nelson scored two goals Tuesday against Eau Claire North, junior Mady Shew scored twice, and freshman Lindsey Szymanski and senior captain Ashley Nelson had a goal apiece while Nesbitt stopped all seven shots she faced as the Cats improved to 3-2 overall, 1-0 in BRC play.

Conley said the biggest question mark going into the season is the Wildcat’s back line. He said the Cats have been fortunate to have players like Jacqueline Balsiger and Izzy Lucking anchoring the defense the past 6-7 years but are very young and inexperienced in the back this season.

“This season we will get there, but there will be a bit of a learning curve,” he said. “Kids are working hard at shoring it up and I have no doubt we will see good results. As a program we take a lot of pride in posting shutouts, as we average 13-15 every season. We'll have to work at it, but hope to hit that mark again. Freshman goalkeeper Riley Nesbitt has been playing phenomenal in goal, making some key saves and leading the defense.”

The Cats traveled to La Crosse for a two-day quad to open the season and got a hat trick from Lexi Szymanski in a 4-3 loss to Green Bay Preble March 29. They went on to lose to Appleton North, 10-0, the next day, but Conley wasn’t concerned.

“We treated it a little less formally as we were short handed with kids on spring break and hadn't had a single session outside yet,” he said about the opening weekend. “Saturday we tried to get everyone in, JV included, and ran up against a very talented and tough Appleton North team. They chose to play their starters the entire match and definitely proved to be a mismatch for our younger players. But some definite bright spots to take away as well.”

Those bright spots started to shine even more against Holmen and Onalaska this past Saturday, April 6. After playing to a 1-1 tie through the first half with Holmen the Cats broke the game open in the second half for a 6-1 victory. Lexi Szymanski, Lindsey Szymansk and senior co-captain Autumn Gray had a goal apiece while Liv Nelson registered the second hat trick by a freshman this season.

“That might be the first time I have ever coached two freshmen with hat tricks in the first five games of a season,” Conley noted.

Conley said the Wildcats looked a little tired in their second game Saturday at Onalaska, but were still able to sneak away with a 2-1 victory on a pair of goals by Shew.

“There is a reason I do not participate in tournaments with two games played in a day,” Conley said about Saturday’s doubleheader. “But that was a very important win when it comes to seeding. We have basically assured ourselves we won't have to travel down that way for playoffs. New Richmond struggled, losing to Holmen 3-1 and tying with Onalaska 0-0. So that puts us in the driver seat for seeding; up to us to finish the job.”

The Wildcats are scheduled to host Hudson Thursday, April 11, at 5 p.m. before hosting Menomonie Tuesday, April 16.

Bob Burrows

Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.

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