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St. Mary's girls clinch first finals berth

The opportunities have been there in recent seasons for the St. Mary's girls soccer team, the ability to seize them has not.

That all changed Tuesday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Community Park.

Showing the skill, poise and determination befitting an elite program, the Crusaders finally broke through in the semifinals of the Class 3A/2A/1A state playoffs with a 4-1 triumph over visiting Oregon Episcopal.

Anna Thorndike registered a hat trick and backed her way into an assist on Erika Peterson's goal to pace the offense, while goalkeeper Gina Barbieri made clutch saves and was greatly aided by the play of Lindsay Barnum and Abby Steinsiek.

As the fruits of their labor, the Crusader girls earned their first appearance in a state championship game in school history. St. Mary's (15-0-1) will face Catlin Gabel, a 4-0 winner over Rogue River on Tuesday, at Liberty High in Hillsboro on Saturday morning.

"This means so much; they've worked so hard," said St. Mary's head coach Dave Potter, who guided the South Medford boys to a state title in 2003. "This year, what was sitting in every fiber of their body was the desire to make it to the state championship game and not stop there."

Recent history, especially in late-round home games, has not been kind to the Crusaders. St. Mary's lost at U.S. Cellular to eventual state champion Gladstone in last year's semifinals, and fell short against Oregon Episcopal at Spiegelberg Stadium in the 2008 quarterfinals.

With many of the girls on the current team having lived through those disappointments, they weren't about to let it happen again Tuesday.

"Everyone knew and we knew that we deserved to be there, all that was left was showing it," St. Mary's senior Mackenzie Krieser said of reaching the finals. "It's been something that we've been really wanting and working toward for a long time."

Krieser had a goal disallowed 10 minutes into the game on an offsides call, but early indications showed that the Aardvarks would be in for a challenge against the hard-charging Crusaders. St. Mary's finally broke through in official fashion at the 23:36 mark when Sarah Bennion earned a corner kick and Thorndike deposited a curling right-footer high into the far corner.

"Normally I'm on the left and it will curl in but this time it was the right," said Thorndike, a junior forward. "I'm ambidextrous so it works either way. They're pretty fun, but my foot's kinda temperamental. Sometimes it'll go in and sometimes it just won't."

That score held up through halftime, with OES managing only a few long-range crosses toward the goal that were easily scooped up by Barbieri. The work of Lindsay Barnum, McKenna Barnum, Mattie Gambee and Nicole Martin on the back line kept the Aardvarks (8-5-5) from mounting much of a rush, as well as the all-out play of Steinsiek, who seemed to be all over the field as a steadying influence.

"Our defense only makes a few mistakes a game and that's a huge credit to them because they work their butts off and have saved our bacon a couple times," said Krieser. "It all starts in the back with Gina and then it ripples its way up."

The ripple effect works offensively as well, with Thorndike taking advantage of the double- and triple-team efforts by OES on Krieser to find room to operate in the second half.

After spending much of the game working to get close-range shots, Thorndike caught OES goalie Kristin Grewe off guard with a 30-yard left-footer that slipped just inside the near post for a goal in the 45th minute.

"I couldn't ask for a better forward mate," said Krieser. "When I can't get the job done she's always there to back me up. Having another player as skilled as Anna is important."

Grewe saved another low shot by Thorndike moments later, but couldn't do much on the next series when Thorndike ran onto a strong throw-in by freshman Rachel Raniele down the right sideline, cut back left and fired a high shot from the top of the box that was partially slowed by the goalie but not enough to keep it from reaching the goal. The goal at the 47:20 mark made it 3-0 St. Mary's.

"Anna has the ability to do that," said Potter. "She has the athleticism, she has the touch, the feel and the understanding and that's not a bad collection of attributes for a soccer player to have. She can make the most of it if you give her half a chance."

Thorndike was quick to credit her teammates for finding her in the open field, and for plenty of room to roam.

"It was kind of preparation meets opportunity," said Thorndike. "They didn't guard me so I went."

"A lot of people were focusing on Mack because she's the normal goal-scorer," she added. "They were all focused on her and I was kinda like a little shadow and I came and followed along and scored. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be open."

The Aardvarks answered one minute later on a rare defensive lapse by the Crusaders. Senior Austen Yeager sent a corner kick toward the box that Barbieri made her way toward but couldn't get through the traffic to make contact. That allowed the ball to reach the far post, where Hannah Dugoni simply tapped the loose ball in for a goal.

St. Mary's answered with 13:17 to play when Raniele sent a long throw-in near the corner flag toward Thorndike in the box. Thorndike was forced to limbo her way down to the ball to get a flick on with her back at the near post, and Peterson sliced right in behind her for a one-touch shot into the net.

"They're a good team, and set pieces in playoff games are huge," said OES head coach Scot Thompson. "They got two goals off two really good (set pieces). They're a complete team and I give them their credit, it was a good game for them."

Barbieri kept the Aardvarks at bay over a frantic final 15 minutes, ranging to her left for a pair of diving saves from inside the box.

"We had our shots," added Thompson. "On a different day, back at our house, maybe they go in, but down here the keeper just made some good saves today."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

St. Mary's Anna Thorndike, right, fights for the ball with Oregon Episcopal's Anastasia Chevchenko during Tuesday's Class 3A/2A/1A semifinal game. - Julia Moore