The Waunakee girls’ soccer team has an abundance of talent; that much is plainly obvious to see.
It wasn’t just sheer talent that propelled the Warriors to getting over the final hump to earn a spot at State: a spot they narrowly missed out on a year ago. What made the difference for the Warriors was a near-perfect combination of patience and pointed aggression that gave them the edge in each of their Sectional contests.
With a State trip on the line on Saturday against Middleton, especially late in the game, Waunakee’s senior leadership shined through.
In last year’s Sectional Final, Waunakee’s offense faltered and was unable to put any goals on the scoreboard. Fast-forward to this year’s Sectional Final against the Cardinals, and the Warriors came out with a clear intent to play with aggression.
Savannah Philo registered the game’s first shot on goal less than two minutes after play began and with it, set the tempo for the Warriors.
It took barely two more minutes for Waunakee to break through and net the game’s first goal. Lexis Savola beat her defender and found the back of the net on an assist from Maddie Farnsworth to put Waunakee up 1-0 after just four minutes of play.
“That was a great play beating somebody and then finishing…” said Waunakee’s Head Coach Ben Voss on Savola’s goal. “It helps when you get on the board first; it builds a little confidence.”
Having been caught off-guard early, Middleton quickly matched Waunakee’s intensity after going down a goal. The Cardinals scored an equalizer 12 minutes later, ensuring the Warriors wouldn’t run away with an easy win.
Isabelle Barmore nearly put the Warriors back in front at the 26-minute mark when she launched a long free kick towards Middleton’s goal, but after the ball passed the goalie’s outstretched fingers, it bounced harmlessly off the top crossbar and over the net. Though the kick didn’t go in, it made clear Waunakee’s mentality: if an opportunity presented itself, the Warriors were going to take it.
Just a couple minutes later, Farnsworth took a pass from a teammate near midfield and went to work. She weaved her way through seemingly the entire Middleton defense, punctuating the run in the box by beating the Cardinals’ keeper and gave the Warriors another one-goal lead.
“There’s nothing else to give but 100 percent,” said Farnsworth.
Up 2-1, Waunakee had one more good scoring opportunity in the first half, but Sarah McLaughlin’s shot with under five minutes to go until the break sailed over the goal, and the Warriors carried the 2-1 lead into halftime.
Knowing Middleton would be coming with everything they had to open the second half, Waunakee readied themselves for a battle after halftime.
“We had to weather the storm for sure. We knew coming out, 2-1 is a dangerous lead,” said Voss. “When the season’s on the line, I think it adds a little bit more stress and pressure.”
Over the course of 10 minutes to open up the second half, Middleton constantly kept the ball near the Warrior goal.
“We just had to hunker down and stay organized,” added Voss.
Warrior goalie Alyssa Kuhn made two of her six saves – including a clutch dive to her right at the 48-minute mark – in the first 10 minutes after halftime to keep Middleton off the board. Another Cardinal shot was sent over the crossbar, and despite Middleton’s best efforts, Waunakee’s narrow lead was preserved.
The field finally opened up for the Warriors as the second half progressed, temporarily relieving the pressure on their defense and goaltender.
As the clock ticked closer and closer to 90 minutes, Middleton kept with their gameplan, searching for a give-and-go to beat Waunakee’s pressure defense. That, along with quality defensive efforts, allowed the Cardinals to surrender very few quality chances in the second half to the Warriors.
One chance was all the Warriors needed, though.
Starting near midfield once again, Farnsworth beat her defender with 13 minutes to play and raced toward the endline. Trailing her was McLaughlin, and Waunakee’s high-scoring duo put their impeccable chemistry on display one more time.
Farnsworth sent the ball right at the feet of McLaughlin, who sent her shot past Middleton’s goalie to give Waunakee what proved to be a critical two-goal lead.
“Sarah’s always in the right spot at the top of the box,” said Farnsworth. “I just slot it to her and it was perfect.”
“I think they were exhausted and emotions were high…” Voss added. “Maddie ended up beating somebody, kept going endline, slotted it across, and we just tap it in… That was huge; we needed that. We spent a lot of energy preserving that 2-1 lead.”
Now in panic-mode, Middleton’s offense went into a frenzy trying to recover from a two-goal deficit. Waunakee was effective in clearing out any threats and keeping them at bay.
With four minutes left, though, that all went out the door. Middleton was given a small window of opportunity and seized it, firing a deep shot from outside the box. The shot was perfectly placed, and just managed to sneak inside the upper-left corner past Kuhn’s outstretched hands.
Now clinging to a 3-2 lead, the Warriors had 205 seconds to kill in order to seal their spot at State.
Nearly all of those remaining 205 seconds were spent on Waunakee’s end of the field. Even Middleton’s goalie left her spot in goal to give the Cardinals an extra athlete in play.
With the field condensed, Waunakee held firm and kept everything in front of them.
After one final clear, the referee blew his whistle to end the game; Waunakee’s sideline erupted and spilled onto the field, joining their teammates to celebrate their 3-2 victory and berth at State.
McLaughlin’s insurance goal at 77-minutes proved to be the difference, especially with a drained Warrior squad leaving every last bit of effort on the field.
“We had some left in the tank last year,” said Farnsworth. “We gave it our all this game.”
“If it was 2-2, I don’t know if we would have had much in the tank to swing the momentum back in our favor,” Voss added. “That third goal was huge.”
“Sometimes it just goes in,” said McLaughlin with a smile. “It did tonight.”
In order to even have the chance to play for a trip to State, the Warriors needed to get a win two days prior in their final home game of the year against Kettle Moraine.
Kettle Moraine 1
Thursday’s contest against the Lasers was a defensive battle early.
After 20 minutes, each side had mustered only one shot on goal, with neither getting past the opposing team’s goalkeeper.
Kettle Moraine got the game’s first break, scoring on a free kick from outside the box after a half hour of play. With the Lasers taking an early 1-0 lead, both teams carefully controlled their tempo on a hot day that required more substitutions than normal.
Farnsworth and McLaughlin both left the game for a quick breather late in the half; both returned rejuvenated at the 38-minute mark.
“Throughout the course of the game, you have to adjust…” said Voss. “That was more of a ‘Hey, it’s hot and humid.’ They both needed a sub at the same time.”
With their pair of senior leaders re-inserted into the lineup, Waunakee mounted an end-of-half push to tie the game. Though they put an abundance of pressure on Kettle Moraine’s goalie – including two corner kicks in the final minutes – it looked like the Warriors were going to head into halftime trailing by a goal.
With less than a minute before the break, however, the Warriors finally caught a break of their own. Anne Dotzler set up McLaughlin, and Waunakee’s leading scorer buried the equalizer to give the Warriors a huge lift.
Both teams had chances early, as the ball bounced back and forth toward both teams’ goals. As play wore on, though, the Warriors seemed to have more energy than their Laser counterparts, and the ball steadily spent more and more time on Kettle Moraine’s side of the field.
Still, even after controlling possession and not allowing a shot on goal after the 65-minute mark, Waunakee was unable to snag the lead as the clock ticked below 10 minutes remaining.
With under seven minutes to play, Dotzler again got deep into the box and – for the second time in the game – set up a teammate for a score.
This time, it was Savola waiting, and she put herself in perfect position to bury the game-winner.
“I saw the ball, and I just went for it,” said Savola.
Her shot found the back of the net, putting the Warriors up 2-1 with 6:16 left to play.
Kettle Moraine was able to put together a final push in the game’s final minutes, culminating with a game-saving clear by Kuhn – her eighth save of the game – with 30 seconds to go, sealing the win.
“I love this team…” said Voss “I’m a big believer that good things happen to good people. We’ve got 25 good kids on this team.”
Waunakee’s pair of Sectional wins upped their record to 18-2-2 heading into the State Tournament. The Warriors’ trip to state is their first since 2014, when the Warriors defeated Waukesha West in the Division 2 Championship.
“I’m so excited to go to State,” said Farnsworth. “It’s amazing.”
“We’re all excited,” added McLaughlin.
The top-seeded Warriors will face Muskego in the semifinals for their first contest at Uihlein Soccer Park in Milwaukee. Start time for Friday’s contest is scheduled for 11 a.m.
With a win, the Warriors will advance to Saturday’s title game against the winner between Bay Port and DSHA with a State Title in the balance. The Division 1 Championship game will kick off at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, also at Uihlein Soccer Park.