A decade after retiring as head coach of the Monona Grove High School girls soccer team, Jeff Vitense almost has a photographic memory of six special seasons from 2000-05 when the Silver Eagles were virtually unbeatable in the postseason.
In all six of those seasons, MG reached the state tournament. From 2001-03, the Silver Eagles brought home the silver ball awarded to the WIAA Division 2 state champions.
Many of today’s students at Monona Grove High School weren’t born when the girls soccer field was graced with the talents of goaltender Jessie Vetter, later the goalie for the goal-medal winning U.S. women’s Olympic team, and many others who made contributions such as Holly Elsberry, Jessie and Melissa Ricter, Kelty Carew, Tina and Tara Thompson, and Rachel Vitense, the head coach’s daughter.
“In all honesty, the group was very dedicated, very intense and fun loving, and they really liked each other. They really cared for each other,” Vitense said.
Vitense takes over
In 1998, under head coach Jesus Torres, MG advanced to the state tournament but fell to future nemesis Whitefish Bay 1-0 at Madison’s Breese Stevens Field. Two years later, after Torres departed, Vitense was put in charge after serving two seasons as JV/freshman coach. He didn’t aspire to be the team’s head coach. He had a demanding job at Oscar Mayer where he was on-call around the clock. Yet, he was allowed flexibility in his work schedule so he could take on the job. He was fortunate to have a number of talented athletes on the team, including many who played club soccer and attended camps in the summer.
The Silver Eagles returned to the state tournament in 2000 and reached the title game but lost to Whitefish Bay again 2-1. Yet, Vitense said he was confident this was the start of better things to come for the Monona Grove girls soccer program.
In 2001, Vitense had six freshmen in the starting lineup and took off after a few weeks into the season. After finishing the regular season at 17-3-3, the Silver Eagles beat Dodgeville and Madison Edgewood to win the regional, and then shut out Waunakee and Sauk Prairie to advance to the state tournament.
In the state semifinal game against Racine St. Catherine, Elsberry scored 57 seconds into the match and Melissa Ricter added a goal in the 61st minute to lead the Silver Eagles to a 2-0 win.
For the second straight year, MG would play for the championship against Whitefish Bay, which featured Gillian Hatch, one of the top players in the country. Yet, the Silver Eagles kept her and the rest of the team under control as the game remained a scoreless tie through 80 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of overtime.
The game would be decided in a penalty kick shootout. In a close exciting showdown, Vetter and MG won the shootout 3-2 to win its first state championship.
Looking back, Vitense said the team’s defense was the key to the win even though Whitefish Bay outshot the Silver Eagles 13-2.
“Whitefish Bay never took a shot in a dangerous position on the field. We forced them to take long shots, and Jessie Vetter is not going to make a mistake on a long shot,” Vitense said. “We eliminated a lot of their potential scoring opportunities.”
The 2002 Monona Grove team was just as dominant and again earned a No. 1 seed in the sectionals after a 14-3-3 finish in the regular season. The Silver Eagles took regional games in shutouts over Sugar River and Platteville, got by Madison Edgewood 2-1 in the sectional semifinal and then needed two overtimes to beat Aquinas 2-1 to earn another trip to state.
MG again had to play Whitefish Bay in the state semifinal tournament match, but two goals by Elsberry sealed a 2-0 win.
In the title game, Elsberry buried a penalty kick in the eighth minute as the Silver Eagles won 1-0 over Green Bay Notre Dame to win a second straight state crown. Vitense said Ellsbury was a spectacular offensive player.
“She scored as many goals in the air as she did with her feet,” he said. “She was not tall, but she knew how to find the back of the net.”
In 2003, Monona Grove’s 11-5-2 mark led to another top seed in the sectional bracket. The Silver Eagles won over Mount Horeb and Madison Edgewood, and then needed to win another overtime penalty kick shootout over Waunakee to advance to state.
MG would not have to face Whitefish Bay, which was eliminated in the state semifinal game by Green Bay Notre Dame. MG’s semifinal opponent was Grafton, which was held to only four shots on goal as the Silver Eagles won 2-0 with goals scored by Danielle McKenzie and Carew.
In the battle for the championship, MG beat previously unbeaten Notre Dame 2-0 as Rachel Vitense had three of MG’s five shots on goal and scored a goal in the 64th minute after Jessie Ricter gave the Silver Eagles the lead early in the second half to give MG its third straight title.
In 2004, the team’s six starting freshmen from 2001 were now seniors, hungry to win a fourth straight state title. After an 11-5-2 regular season and another No. 1 seed in the tournament, MG defeated Whitewater and McFarland, and then knocked off Waunakee 3-1 to make its fifth straight return to state.
This time, the state tournament games would be played at Uihlein Soccer Park in Milwaukee. Vitense said it was not a pleasant experience.
“There was a horrible rainstorm, and we had limited practice outside,” Vitense recalled. “In our game against Northland Pines, we were put off into a side field with no stands. The grass looked like it hadn’t been cut in a week and a half.”
Danielle McKenzie scored two goals, and Amber Smith, Tara Thompson, Laura Baumgartner and Jessie Ricter also found the back of the net in a 6-0 win. After ground crews tried to soak up the wetness with sand, MG played in the championship match against Catholic Memorial. The Crusaders scored two goals in the first 21 minutes. Tara Thompson cut the lead to one in the 71st minute but MG couldn’t get the equalizer in a 2-1 loss.
“We played really well. It just wasn’t meant to be. They were a spectacular team,” Vitense said.
Back to Milwaukee
With seven starters graduating from the team, Vitense didn’t know what was going to happen in 2005. Despite finishing 7-9-2 in the regular season, the Silver Eagles made another return to the state tournament by winning postseason games over Jefferson, Mount Horeb, Madison Edgewood and Platteville. In the state semifinal game, Whitefish Bay defeated MG 2-1 to keep the Silver Eagles out of the championship match for the first time in five years.
It marked the end of an era for Monona Grove girls soccer. Vitense left as the head coach after 2010 but remains in contact with his former players from those championship years.
Many are now successful in their careers and their marriages. There’s no telling how much of an impact playing on three straight state title teams molded them into successful adults.
For Vitense, it was an unforgettable time.
“I enjoyed every minute of it. It was fun, it was interesting, it was always exciting, and challenging in a good way,” he said. “It was special.”