Lexi Mazzara

McFarland High School girls soccer player Lexi Mazzara gets her head on the ball during the Spartans' WIAA Division 3 sectional semifinal game June 6 against Sugar River. The game ended in a scoreless tie, but Sugar River advanced to the sectional final game after defeating the Spartans in a penalty kick shootout.

It was an absolutely, devastating way for the McFarland High School girls soccer team to lose a match and end one of the most successful seasons in school history.

The Spartans dominated visiting Sugar River offensively with 20 shots on goal in the June 6 WIAA Division 3 sectional semifinal.

Raiders goaltender Rachel Heittola had to make 10 saves. On the other end of the field, McFarland netminder Katie Hildebrandt needed to make one save as Spartan defenders and midfielders spent most of the evening keeping the ball out of danger.

Yet, after 90 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of overtime, the issue was decided in a penalty kick shootout, which meant the game rode on the shoulders of Heittola and Hildebrandt.

In the end, the Raiders lived to play another day as they defeated the Spartans in the best-of-five shootout 4-3.

“You hate winning with PKs. You hate losing even more with PKs,” said dejected McFarland head coach TJ DiPrizio. “I’d be in favor of a different, creative way of doing it, but it is what it is.”

The loss brought McFarland to the end of the road in the playoffs after an undefeated season of 18-0-3. The Spartans outscored opponents 124-6 and swept all 10 of their Rock Valley Conference games.

But McFarland couldn’t crack the code on how to score against Heittola and Sugar River, which allowed only five goals in 25 matches. With the game scoreless at halftime, DiPrizio told his team to keep up the offensive pressure.

“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” DiPrizio told his Spartans. “I said to keep shooting and we’ll get one in. They kept doing it, and couldn’t get a goal.”

Lexi Hettiger, who tallied 38 goals this season and Peyton Witt with 28 had their opportunities. Greta Corcoran, Greta Blau and Sarah Blakeslee – each nine-goal scorers in the team’s first 20 games – were also very active in McFarland’s offensive attack.

Yet, the tall, athletic Heittola could not be beaten as she stopped numerous shots by diving and leaping for the ball. Other McFarland shots just missed the mark after flying wide or over the net. Some deflections in front of the goalmouth also didn’t work out.

After 110 minutes of scoreless regulation and overtime, the game entered a penalty kick round.

Maeve Christlieb, Freya Gilbertson and Grace Breuchel were successful in their attempts for McFarland, but Heittola saved two shots from other Spartan players. Elawyn Fong sealed the Raiders victory by nailing a shot past Hildebrandt.

“They buried their shots,” DiPrizio said. “You can’t fault Katie at all on PKs.”

The Spartans will lose only three seniors to graduation including Hettiger, Ava Papalia-Beaty and Lahdan Pournik. Witt will return in 2020 as a senior along with backup goaltender Grace Henes, Corcoran, Gilbertson, Christlieb, Olivia Schmidt, Emily Gates, Carson Eccles and Lexi Mazzara. McFarland’s freshman sextet of Breuchel, Blau, Jaelyn White, Elise Gillen, Megan Gates and Avery Larsen will also come back with a year of varsity experience behind them.

Hildebrandt, Blakeslee, Haley Updike and Leah Caple will return as juniors.

“This is one of better teams I’ve had,” DiPrizio said. “I thought this team had a real good shot (at state). I’m looking forward to next year. We have quite a bit of talent coming back. These girls are going to come back hungry.”

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