Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Over the years as a high school soccer coach, Dave Potter has been blessed with more than his fair share of forces of nature up front.
Star players like Jona Maukonen with the South Medford girls team, Pat Lower or Corey O'Neill with the Panther boys or, more recently, at St. Mary's with talents like Whitney Adderson, Mackenzie Krieser, Abby Steinsiek and Anna Thorndike. You name the year, there's typically been that one figure everyone knew they had to try and stop.
This year's cast of Crusaders doesn't necessarily boast that singularly targeted attacker, although the potential is there, but that's exactly what has been the most refreshing aspect of this season for Potter.
Well, that and the fact that St. Mary's finds itself again in the Class 3A/2A/1A girls soccer state semifinals with an 11-2-3 record and District 4 championship under its belt.
"When I go back through and reflect on the teams that have progressed to the semifinals or further, there's always been that prodigious player on every team," Potter said Monday night. "This is a different type of a team. It's so refreshing to see that you can accomplish these achievements in a different way."
"We all love, as coaches, to believe that our team is playing as a team and most of the times they are," he added, "but so many times you're depending on that one individual to get that one goal you need in a match because one can win it. But on this team I can't tell you who is going to do the damage in the attack on an opponent."
That is not meant to belittle or disrespect anyone on this year's team, rather it's a reflection of how balanced and unified the Crusaders have played throughout the year.
St. Mary's enters today's semifinal at defending champion Oregon Episcopal (12-1-2) having scored 56 goals against 12 allowed and with Potter utilizing the services of all 20 players, albeit some considerably more than others.
Sophomore Lilli Knudsen stands as the Crusaders' leading goal scorer with 15 to go with two assists, but the load has been shouldered by so many other contributors that it's hard to tag her as the team's go-to player. Junior Rachel Raniele is undoubtedly the top playmaker with 18 assists to go with seven goals, but freshman Emily Elmore has nine goals in limited varsity action, and seniors Amber Moore and Erika Peterson have long showed they can strike at a moment's notice.
"As long as I had a Mackenzie Krieser or any of the other players mentioned," Potter said, "I could sit there and know that we were going to score and something positive was going to happen and the opponent was going to have to shut us down because it was to our advantage. This year I don't have that, but what I have is a group of girls that flourish together."
"This group this year has just been an eye-opening experience for me and it's been refreshing to see a group of players go where we were back in August to where we are today," he added. "We're playing in the semifinals of the state tournament and I don't think anyone would have believed that other than the girls themselves."
In all honesty, even Potter viewed this season — his sixth at St. Mary's — as a potential rebuilding year. Lack of that one omnipresent star can certainly cloud judgment, especially when players like Krieser and Thorndike had so recently dominated the 3A/2A/1A level.
The Crusader girls, however, had other plans in mind.
With captains McKenna Barnum, Moore, Raniele and Peterson setting the tone, the Crusaders showed from Day 1 that a step backward was not in St. Mary's future for 2012.
"This group came together early and I think part of that was our opening match against Catlin Gabel," Potter said in alluding to a scoreless tie on Sept. 1 against one of the state's elite programs. "Back in September, I saw something in the girls that alerted me to what their potential is all about, and they have repeated that all season."
From a 3-0 win over Henley to a 3-2 loss to Class 6A North Medford, Potter saw something very important that had more to do with effort than goal scoring.
"We played some opponents who you would believe would have an advantage on us," he said, "and the girls continually stepped up and met that challenge and they did it as a group, as a team, as a family, never knowing who was going to step up and produce something that day we haven't seen before."
That unknown quality is what, in the end, has made the Crusaders' run so unique. Even the players don't know — or care — who will come up big on a given day, they're just supremely confident that someone will get the job done.
"The consistency throughout the season is really appreciated from a coaching standpoint," said Potter. "You don't wonder who is going to show up today with this group, it's more what am I going to see today that I haven't seen before."
Only twice this season has Potter sat on the sidelines questioning his team's performance or, more specifically, if that truly was his team out on the pitch. In each case, the players have made adjustments and taken care of business largely before Potter has had to say a word.
Everything gained, according to the coach, has come from the team's "Family" mantra and the unbelievable unity that was continuing to develop during Monday's practice under chilly, rainy conditions.
"It's a very good feeling right now with this group of girls," said Potter. "We went into the Catlin Gabel (quarterfinal match Saturday) in this weather, with it raining and cold and windy and nasty and all I heard from them was, 'Dave, I am so excited.' At this time of the year it's not unusual for players to be feeling weary and worn out but right now the girls are as excited about playing soccer as I've ever seen. That's a reward right there in itself to be at this point in the season and all they're thinking about is playing more soccer, every single one of them."
Today's matchup marks the third straight year that St. Mary's and Oregon Episcopal School have squared off in the state semifinals. The Crusaders scored a 4-1 victory in 2010, while OES won 5-1 last year. If you take into account that the Aardvarks ousted the Crusaders in the 2008 quarterfinals with a 3-1 win, this year will mark the fourth time in five years that one of the teams has eliminated the other from title contention.
"The girls are going to have to step it up tomorrow at a level higher than anything they've produced this year," Potter said. "They're going to have to play composed soccer. They haven't forgotten how strong Oregon Episcopal is and how well they move the ball and combine with each other."
The Aardvarks' only loss this season was against Grant, which will play in today's 6A semifinals, but a pair of ties to Valley Catholic forced them into sharing the District 1 title. Oregon Episcopal School is ranked No. 1 in the 3A/2A/1A power rankings, with Valley Catholic second and also in the semifinals today against another District 4 team, Glide. St. Mary's boasts the No. 4 power ranking and is coming off a 2-1 overtime win over Catlin Gabel that denied the Eagles a potential fourth straight trip to the state finals.
Anastasiya Chevtchenko, a senior forward, provided the key to last year's win for OES with a goal and three assists — all on corner kicks deftly placed to her intended target. Aardvarks coach Scot Thompson has made no secret about how critical such set pieces are to a game's outcome and that his team practices them over and over again.
Senior Hannah Huston combined with sophomore Carolyn Ruoff for a goal in last year's match and will be ones to watch, along with senior Erica Massaro, who set up Chevtchenko's goal and earned a majority of her team's corner kick chances.
Senior goalkeeper Sara Eaton also returns for OES, as does St. Mary's goalkeeper Viv Juncal, who has gained more confidence and experience during her sophomore campaign thanks to the efforts of volunteer keeper coach Scott Dewing.
However it plays out on the road today, Potter said the girls have already earned their place as one of his truly remarkable squads.
"I'm just real pleased and proud of the girls and looking forward to them having the experience to play in a state semifinal," he said. "Whatever the outcome tomorrow, I'm sure they're going to enjoy it."
And they'll enjoy it as one happy family.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry