What the St. Mary's girls soccer team experienced during a September weekend in Portland was, as head coach Dave Potter puts it, "an eye-opening experience."
And with his eyes wide open, Potter loved what he saw.
His District 4 champion Crusaders fought to a 1-1 tie against two-time defending Class 3A/2A/1A state champion Oregon Episcopal on Sept. 13 before falling to 2010 state champion Catlin Gabel, 1-0, the next day.
"That trip was worth every penny we spent," Potter says. "I came home delighted with what I saw."
Potter hopes now that his club's impressive nonleague schedule begins to pay off today, when fourth-ranked St. Mary's (12-1-2) hosts fifth-ranked Creswell (15-3) in a state quarterfinal match at U.S. Cellular Community Park at 1 p.m.
The Crusader girls and boys are the last-standing prep soccer teams in the Rogue Valley.
The St. Mary's boys (9-2-2) travel to play top-ranked Riverdale (13-0) at Lewis & Clark College in Portland today.
Potter's squad also took on three 4A Skyline Conference teams — finishing 2-0-1 in matches against Henley, Hidden Valley and Klamath Union — before running the table in the district.
All that overachieving? It was by design, Potter explains.
"We do everything we can to put ourselves up against the best opponents we can hook up with," he says.
The significance of the Crusaders' northern road trip can't be underestimated, Potter says. The program graduated seven seniors last season and the 2013 edition was fresh with six new varsity players, including three freshmen, heading into it.
Fast-forward to November: Oregon Episcopal is 12-1-2 and top-ranked, while Catlin Gabel is a deceptive 8-7-1.
"Basically (Catlin Gabel) plays 6A-level soccer," Potter says. "All they do is hone their skills and sharpen their skills week after week. There are no weak opponents in District 1.
"In my book, we were fortunate to tie that match against (Oregon Episcopal). What it showed me is our players are strong enough to weather the storm that we had to weather early in the match. We came back to tie it up and it was a good battle the entire second half ... in the beginning, we were not ready for that pace."
Things only got better against Catlin Gabel, Potter says, no matter the final result.
"We just played superb," he recalls.
St. Mary's has grown tremendously since, Potter says. The Crusaders have captured 11 straight victories and allowed just six goals this season, while their upcoming opponent— District 3's Creswell — has given up 12.
Senior Emily Alvarez, junior Lilli Knudsen and sophomore Emily Elmore have combined for 31 of St. Mary's 62 goals. Elmore and Alvarez possess great speed and experience, while Knudsen is an exceptional finisher and distributor, Potter says.
Rachel Raniele, Abby Coughlin, Allie Buccino, Ellie Hough, Knudsen and Alvarez all have five or more assists for the Crusaders, who finished second at state in 2010.
Junior goalkeeper Viv Juncal, a three-year starter, will go up against the Bulldogs, whom Potter watched lose to Western Mennonite/Perrydale, 2-0, last Saturday. Heavy rain made for poor playing conditions.
"They are a very hard-working team," Potter says of Creswell. "They are a physical team that never gives up."
The Bulldogs beat Glide, 2-1, in the first round of the state playoffs. St. Mary's downed Glide, 5-0, and 2-1 during the regular season.
Saturday's victor will play the winner of a quarterfinal match between Oregon Episcopal and Corbett.
On the boys side, the eighth-ranked Crusaders face a tall order: District 1 champion Riverdale has shut out its last three opponents and allowed just eight goals this fall. The Mavericks are the defending state champs.
St. Mary's, which has won six straight, lost in the first round of last year's playoffs but was the state runner-up the previous two seasons.
The Crusaders upset Riverdale, 1-0, in the 2010 quarterfinals.
Saturday's victor will take on the winner of a quarterfinal match between Canyonville Christian Academy and Portland Adventist Academy.
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him online at www.facebook.com/danjonesmt or twitter.com/dljcards