Last year, the U18 River Eagles team came within one game, and really even one bad half, of winning the program’s first-ever state championship.
This year, with almost the entire team back, they were dedicated to getting back to the four-team C-II State Tournament, and at least getting another chance.
They did. And then they took advantage of that chance, sweeping both games of the state tournament this past weekend.
“We all wanted to go to state,” said team member Hillary Arechigo. “Winning it was just an extra thing that happened.”
In just getting to state, the Eagles had tackled a major goal. They wanted to repeat as the league champions almost as much as they wanted to secure the first state championship in program history.
“You’re judged on your body of work,” said Coach Arnold Changamire. “[In the regular season] you’re judged on how consistent you are. State isn’t always the best reflection of that.”
During the regular season, the girls were consistently good. They didn’t take a loss in league play this year, settling just twice for ties. Late in the year, those ties had them in a tie, for first place.
But, South St. Paul dropped one of their last two regular season games, while the River Eagles never wavered, winning their second straight league title, and earning the top seed for the state tournament.
At this level of state, the tournament is made up strictly of teams from Monticello’s league. So, not only were they the top seed, but they were familiar with all of their opponents, having beaten two of them and tied one.
However, last year they had found themselves in a similar position, only to fall 5-1 in the championship game. They hoped to avoid the same fate this year.
“We felt like we were a little better and more mature,” said Changamire. “Last year we thought we were good enough. [This year] we knew we were good enough.”
In the first round, that proved to be just the case. The Eagles beat St. Croix 4-0.
The victors got two goals from Cody Romer and one each from Sam Brennan and Sarah Traczyk.
But it was their team play and specifically their defense that left their coach satisified with the opening round.
“Defensively, we did a lot of things right,” said Changamire. “It was all of the stuff we’ve been working on.”
The win, while big in a vacuum, was small compared to the game that stood ahead. The Eagles had hammered St. Croix once already this year. But now in the finals they were set to square off against Hastings, a team that had tied them 4-4 in Monticello late in the season.
Hastings is a team that both the Eagles’ coach and players deemed some kind of combination of good, competitive, and a bit feisty. It was likely the most interesting matchup the girls would draw in state, and it was the only team that they had not yet beaten during the season.
Arechigo admitted that the Eagles might have been a bit nervous headed into the game where they came up short last year. But she then proceeded to calm those nerves by scoring the first goal of the state championship game just 15 minutes in.
For the rest of the first half, and the majority of the second half, the Eagles defense, backed by goalie Sam Jandt, again held strong.
Then, with just five minutes standing between them and a state championship, a breakdown. Hastings found an opening and then the back of the net, tying the score at one and eventually forcing overtime.
No one scored in the first of two five-minute overtime halves, sending the game to the second half with the winner still a complete unknown.
With the game getting late, and a need for a goal becoming more desperate, the River Eagles had a couple of options.
They knew they wanted to avoid penalty kicks. That wasn’t how they wanted their season to be decided.
So, they could turn up the pressure and start attacking downfield more, a drastic change from their possession style soccer.
Or, they could stick with what they did to get there.
Possession soccer, they decided, got them there, and they were going to stick with it, win or lose.
Just minutes later Romer found the net for her third goal of the tournament, and the Eagles first state championship.
Changamire said that it was nice for the team to win by sticking to its principles. But really, it was just nice to win. Especially after all the summer days, fall afternoons, and winter nights the girls put in, all leading up to this moment.
“It’s really a culmination of what we’ve done over the past four seasons,” said Changamire.