Two losses early in the season got the Rapid City Stevens girls’ soccer team to the Class AA state title game.
“It got them to kind of wake up, and for them to organize,” Stevens coach Luis Usera said. “Those two games kind of changed the girls’ perspective on who they are, what they are, and what they can be. They just got better every week.”
The Raiders will play for what could be their first-ever state title in girls’ soccer since the sport became sanctioned by the South Dakota High School Activities Association when they host the defending state champion Pierre Lady Governors Saturday night at Sioux Park Stadium.
Kickoff is set for 5 p.m.
One of the two season losses for Stevens, 11-2-1, was to the team they will face for the championship — Pierre. The Lady Govs won 2-0 on Aug. 31 in Pierre. The Raiders other loss was 2-0 to cross-town rival Rapid City Central on Sept. 4, and their one draw was to Sioux Falls O’Gorman, 0-0 on Aug. 18.
Since the Central loss, the Raiders have won seven straight games, outscoring their opponents 37-1.
Usera said they have changed their formation since earlier in the season and are moving the ball much better. He said they also changed some defensive ideas.
“I think we are a completely different looking team than we were in the middle of the year, although we have some of the same tendencies,” he said. “Players have been stepping up. As a coach you don’t see it and then one day they wake up and ‘Wow, you are going to fit into this formation really well.’”
It has been an exciting postseason run for the Raiders, who got out of the first round unscathed for the first time in a few years.
“We’ve waited four years for this week, and we’re super excited to see how we do,” Stevens senior captain Lexie Wood said.
It’s been a different mindset this season, Wood said, more like a long business trip in which they have focused on that next game.
“We didn’t even think about the championship in the first round, we just wanted to get through that first game and see where that one went,” she said.
While the Raiders didn’t spend a lot of time talking about their past disappointments, there was no doubt it fueled their drive this season.
“The Stevens girls have never won a state championship (in the SDHSAA),” Wood said. “All of our seniors — even our juniors and sophomores — we all really want to be part of that first win and be remembered as being the first to win a state championship.”
Fellow senior captain Tandra Keegan said this week has been, “very exciting and very nerve-wracking." But with their intensity and their focus, she believes they will have a good outcome.
“We try to keep our focus, not just game-day, but make sure at practice and throughout the day so we know what is expected from us on game-day,” she said.
Keegan said they are ready for Pierre’s intensity, which she said is different than their own intensity.
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“Pierre plays a little different than us, and as long as we keep the way we play, I think we’ll be good," she said.
Pierre is no stranger to pressure soccer, coming off the state title last season in which it defeated Sioux Falls O’Gorman 3-0. The Lady Govs went into the postseason as the top seed and are 13-1-1 after playoff wins over Mitchell (2-0), Sioux Falls Roosevelt (4-1) and Sioux Falls O’Gorman (2-0).
“They (Lady Govs) were here last year, so their girls have a little bit of an edge with the emotion part,” Usera said. “It’s the team that is going to control their emotion, and the team that will capitalize on the other team’s mistakes first and punish them for making that mistake.”
Although Usera said they are a different team than earlier in the season, the Raiders looked back at the previous game between the two schools and other games that Pierre has played.
He said the Lady Governors are a well-coached by Sidney Zanin, as well as disciplined and talented. On paper, it should be a defensive battle. The Raiders have given up just six goals this season, while Lady Govs have yielded eight.
Senior midfielder Emily Mikkelsen leads Pierre with 18 goals and seven assists, while junior midfielder Janaina Zanin had eight goals and five assists. The Lady Govs outscored their opponents 51-8 his season.
“They have two solid center midfielders and a striker that is blazing fast and really good with the ball. They will be a handful for our girls,” Usera said. “They are creative and they are technical, they win balls in the air. To find their weakness, we have to figure that part out."
Keegan said the Raiders need to keep their touches and make sure that they are the first to win the ball.
“Pierre is a very good team, but if we play our game, we do our combination plays that we have been working on for their kind of defense, we should be able to put the ball in the net,” Keegan said.
Junior Ellie Schad leads the Raiders with 13 goals and six assists, while Wood added 12 goals and nine assists. Stevens outscored its opponents 52-6.
One advantage the Raiders hope will be theirs is the home-field advantage. All four of the state title games Saturday will be played on the synthetic turf of Sioux Park Stadium.
“We have played our last seven or eight games on this turf. I think we’re hoping that is to our advantage because they will be relaxed and nothing will be new. We’re comfortable with it,” he said.
And while it wasn’t for any kind of state title, their yearly battles with Rapid City Central could also help the Raiders control their emotion and focus, as well as battle in a big game. After that loss in the first game to the Cobblers, Stevens won the rematch 2-1.
“If we can remember that feeling, and they can control their emotions, then the state tournament can be one of those things they can control as well,” Usera said.
“Those were like our World Cup pretty much,” Wood added of their battles with Central. “Everything you have you put 110 percent in those games. We’ll do the same for the championship."
Usera said his players are excited to finally get that title-game shot.
“They have been setting a one-game-at-a-time mantra for a while,” Usera said. “Now, they are ready for this game.”