The Cotter girls soccer team wasn’t sure how this unprecedented season was going to end.
Was it going to be shut down just as it got started? Or midway through the year? Or maybe after the regular season ended?
Through it all the Ramblers persevered, battling through the adversity of the unknowns that tomorrow brings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now they will look to make history.
Thanks to another stellar offensive effort, the Ramblers punched their ticket to the program’s second ever Section 1A championship game by defeating Byron 5-1 Wednesday night at chilly Jim Devine Field.
They now aim to bring home the program’s first Section championship when they face Dover-Eyota (9-3-2) at 7 p.m. Thursday night in St. Charles.
The Ramblers (13-0) defeated the Eagles twice this season by a combined score of 12-5 and have outscored opponents 28-1 so far this postseason.
“I look at this year and I mean 2020, it’s just been total chaos,” coach Marie Barrientos said. “As a whole these girls have taken so much in stride and what we have really focused on is why are we playing? Why did you play? Remember when you were six and you were wearing pants that were way too big and shin guards that didn’t fit and you were just running around, scoring on the wrong goal. But that’s really been what this year has been about.
“We didn’t think we were having a season and then we had a season. Then we thought it was going to get shut down. It’s really forced us to come together in a different way. It’s been unbelievable to be around these kids. To be able to cap it off with a section championship, it won’t necessarily define the season, but it would mean the absolute world to these girls.”
Byron and the Ramblers know each other well having played each other in the past two section tournaments with each team winning by a score of 1-0. With the Bears (8-2-2) having allowed just eight goals on the season and zero since Sept. 18, it seemed destined for another tightly contested defensive battle.
That proved quickly to not be the case, as the Ramblers struck early in the ninth minute after Olivia Gardner collected the pass from Megan Morgan before splitting a pair of Byron defenders and firing off a shot inside the box that found the back of the net to give the Ramblers a 1-0 lead. Just 15 minutes later, Ava Killian made it 2-0 on a rocket from just outside the box that tucked its way into the corner of the net.
“We just had an extra fire tonight,” Morgan said. “We were really excited and really looking forward to getting back to the section championship we were in last year. Byron we played them in the playoffs the last two years, so we knew we had to step to the ball extra hard tonight.”
It was the beginning of an offensive clinic for the Ramblers, as they dominated possession through quick one- or two-touch passes. But what was really impressive was their ability to pass with anticipation and confidence seemingly knowing where each other were going to be at all times.
“It was a lot different playing them today,” Gardner said. “We are used to playing through balls and I think we adapted really well to just passing back the ball and getting a better shot. Looking for that next pass. I may have a good shot, but looking for who may have a great one.”
After Byron cut the lead to 2-1 with a goal, the Ramblers responded just a little over two minutes later when Sera Speltz fed Morgan, who delivered a powerful left-footed strike from just outside the box to make it 3-1 right before the half. For Speltz, it was her state leading 23rd assist.
“We usually like to play the through ball to the wide side of the field,” Morgan said. “But up the middle was wide open a lot more. A lot of us pointed out that the goals that Ava and I had, Olivia just did a really good job of playing it back to us and the long shots were just open tonight.”
Gardner collected her second goal of the night on a header after the Byron goalkeeper misplayed a Cotter corner kick just three minutes into the second half to make it 4-1. Freya Brandvik put the game out of reach for good when the wind seemed to will her high shot over the keeper’s head to make it 5-1.
“This Byron team is experienced and has lots of seniors,” Barrientos said. “They are always strong, always physical. They hold off really well and are always disciplined in the back but our group is just relentless. Our subs coming on aren’t subs. They just keep coming at you and I think it’s incredibly tough to hang with because you just don’t get a break.”
The Ramblers were looking forward to face Lourdes in hopes of avenging last season’s 1-0 section title loss, but Dover-Eyota knocked off the top seed in penalty kicks to deny Cotter the opportunity. But still, a chance to make history only comes along every so often. And even though they can’t advance to a state tournament this season, the Ramblers are grateful to have this opportunity.
“We were really nervous this year that we were going to get shut down,” Morgan said. “I personally didn’t think we would get to have playoffs. We were playing every game like it was a playoff game because we never know when it was going to be our last game. But just getting back to the section championship, that has never happened. Going back-to-back section championships, we are ready to not let anyone knock us out this year.”
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