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Crusaders' triple threat

Intelligent, easy going and quick to laugh it’s hard to imagine why anyone would be put on their heels by the likes of St. Mary’s seniors Maddie Wheelock, Meghan Michels and Gabi Castillo.

Then you watch them on the soccer pitch, and it all comes together.

When the Crusaders front line is in competition mode, they unite to become the worst nightmare for those hoping to block their path to the goal at the Class 3A/2A/1A girls soccer level.

“They are the ultimate players,” says St. Mary’s head coach Dave Potter. “They are dedicated, they have desire and their determination is endless. I’ve always contemplated what’s more important: desire, dedication or determination, and these three players have all of those qualities. With their competitive level, they expect so much of themselves.”

And, time and again, the St. Mary’s trio has delivered.

With Wheelock, Michels and Castillo leading the charge, the Crusaders (10-1, 7-0 District 5) find themselves with the state’s No. 2 power ranking and yet another league title under Potter entering their regular-season finale Saturday against Illinois Valley.

St. Mary’s has outscored its opponents to an eye-popping tune of 77 goals scored to only 18 allowed, and the aforementioned trio has been at the forefront every step of the way.

Individually they are sensational, but collectively they take it to another level.

In 11 matches at center forward, Wheelock boasts a whopping 27 goals and 20 assists with six game-winners and six hat tricks. On the right side, Michels has contributed 22 goals and 16 assists with four game-winners and six hat tricks in 10 matches. On the left, Castillo has accounted for five goals and six assists in her 10 matches.

“I love playing with them, it’s really fun to have us three on the front line,” says the 18-year-old Wheelock. “I think we connect well.”

Their secret to success?

“We have been playing together for a really long time,” says the 18-year-old Michels, “and I think just being able to connect with each other really well and trusting each other is a huge thing.”

The trio also has a knack for challenging each other, adds the 17-year-old Castillo, while also nurturing what has been a long-standing friendship on and off the field.

“They encourage me to play with confidence,” says Castillo, “and if I give them the ball I know that they’ll make the best decision, whether it’s to pass it back to me or take it themselves. We really lean on each other.”

Also propelling them to the next level is how well they truly know and seem to balance out one another.

Who’s the funniest? “We all have our moments but Maddie definitely has most of them,” concedes Castillo in a unanimous vote.

Who’s the most serious? “Meghan keeps us all in line,” notes Wheelock in a statement echoed by the others.

And where does Castillo fit in? “She’s the in-between player,” says Michels. “She’s fun and she’s competitive.”

In many ways, it’s their differences that make the trio such a force on the field.

“Of the three players, Maddie is the most freewheeling spirit on the field,” explains Potter. “She’s the toughest one to put reins on.”

That seems to go along with the other girls’ thoughts.

“Maddie just doesn’t stop,” adds Castillo. “She’s tenacious and gets after it. She just plays with confidence and is a beast out there.”

Earlier this season, Wheelock delivered a rarity for St. Mary’s when she tallied five goals in a 10-2 win over crosstown rival Cascade Christian.

“She got away from me,” says Potter sheepishly. “I try to limit how many goals can be scored in a match and usually when they get a hat trick I move them to the back, but she managed to get two more from the back.”

And the last thing Potter wants to do is quell that fire inside any of his goal-scorers.

“I consider it great fortune to have forwards who have a nose for the goal and have that tenacity to go,” says the veteran coach, “and you don’t want to hold that back.”

As for Michels, it’s her undeniable speed that first gains attention.

“Meghan is lightning in a bottle and knows how to play the position she’s playing better than any player I’ve coached at the high school level who plays that position,” says Potter.

That definitely seems to fit Michels, according to Wheelock.

“Meghan can take the ball and dribble it with her speed and get past defenders,” she says, “but also she’ll make runs behind the back line that are just so open. It’s just like, ‘Oh, there’s Meghan, just play her the ball and we’re good.’”

While Wheelock and Michels have similar talents and tendencies, Castillo is more of a jelling influence up front, utilizing combination plays and pinpoint crosses to get the job done.

“Gabi is an intellectual player,” praises Potter. “She understands her role and the area of the field she’s playing and she does some wonderfully remarkable things out there when it looks like she doesn’t have a prayer. She is the best of the three at finding the open players and sharing the ball.”

Michels says Castillo’s ability to see the full field has been a tremendous asset.

“We’ve all been kind of put at different positions and wherever she goes she makes an impact,” says Michels.

Another thing that Wheelock, Michels and Castillo all agree upon is that St. Mary’s success is certainly not limited to the front line.

“It has to go through 11 players to get the goal,” says Castillo, “so we wouldn’t be nearly as successful without all our other teammates supporting us.”

“Especially in recent games,” adds Wheelock, “we’ve been able to switch (the field) through the back line, which is super helpful because it will draw defenders out of our attacking side and open up the space on the attack.”

Seasoned players like seniors Ibixica Alvarez and Grace Weber, sophomores Meg Wright, Sophia Dobry and Mia Castillo, junior Riley Kreul and newcomers to the fold like senior cross country standout Emma Bennion, sophomore transfer Estella Olson and first-time goalkeeper Olivia Lippert have all supplied critical efforts.

“I look back on all my years and I’d say this year has been the most fun and it’s not because we’re top dogs as seniors,” says Castillo. “It’s just this group of girls, seniors or not, is amazing and we work together so well. We really focus on the team chemistry and dynamic, which is a great thing, and Dave plays a great part in that. It’s what makes a team.”

And what makes a team so dangerous as it pursues a fitting finish to a fantastic season.

“This is our season to go all the way,” says Michels of a state title that has eluded the program thanks to a host of semifinal heartbreaks and a runner-up finish in 2010. “I think we’re all kind of expecting that, and super-gunning for that. If we keep working together the way we have been, I think we can do it.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSt Mary’s girls soccer trio, from left to right, Maddie Wheelock, Gabi Castillo and Meghan Michels warm up for their game Wednesday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Community Park.