Maggie Johnson

River Falls’ defender Maggie Johnson takes an elbow to the face from Onalaska’s Kendyl Johansen late in the first half of the Wildcats’ 4-0 win over the Hilltoppers in a WIAA Division 2 sectional semifinal Thursday night, June 9, in River Falls. Bob Burrows / Star-Observer photo

The River Falls girls soccer team was in the midst of an historic season, with a 20-game unbeaten streak, a record of 18-2-2 and three straight postseason shutouts heading into Saturday’s Division 2 sectional final against Sauk Prairie in Rhinelander.

But that didn’t matter to the Eagles, who stopped the Wildcats one game short of the state tournament for the second straight season by a score of 3-1. Sauk Prairie improved to 16-6-1 with the win and advanced to this weekend’s WIAA State Tournament in Milwaukee.

After the loss, River Falls coach Charles Conley said the Wildcats have nothing to hang their heads about.

“It's not like people are just going to get out of the way because you haven’t lost in 20 games,” he said. “It's tough to lose, and it's tough to see things come to an end, but this is still one of the best seasons we’ve ever had here.”

The game was a rematch of the 2021 sectional final, when Sauk Prairie defeated the Wildcats 3-0 to advance to the state tournament. It was also a rematch of their game from earlier this season, in which the Wildcats took a 3-1 victory back on April 23. Conley said that may have worked against the Cats Saturday.

“I was excited to beat them during the regular season, but it also made me nervous because a team of that caliber, we weren't going to sneak up on them a second time,” he said. “It actually might have hurt us to beat them in the season the way we did. They'd be ready for us next time around, and they were.”

Sauk Prairie struck first before the Wildcats tied it up on a first half goal by Lexy Szymanski. The Eagles scored the next two goals to open up a 3-1 lead when the Cats missed a penalty shot that would have made it a one-goal game with about 22 minutes remaining.

“That would have changed the complexion of the game,” Conley noted. “But at the same time, with a 3-1 lead, they dropped off a bit and just tried to not let us get any fast breaks and not let us score.”

Conley said the Eagles also had a definite size advantage, and were able to set a physical tome early.

“They were so big and strong,” he said. “Compared to what we had, I was shocked. And I told the girls, I feel like they did more in the offseason than we did to get better. I feel like they put in the time. They worked a lot harder in their offseason because they were strong. They were really well built.”

The season-ending loss came two days after the Wildcats pushed their unbeaten streak to 20 straight games with their third straight postseason shutout– a 4-0 win over Onalaska in the sectional semifinal match Thursday night in River Falls.

Lexy Szymanski opened the scoring when she dribbled through a pair of defenders at the top of the box and slid a shot into the lower right corner 13 minutes, 38 seconds into the match.

Lillia Gray gave the Cats a 2-0 halftime lead when she sent a left-footed shot on the run to the far post at the 32:27 mark.

Kraly Walker knocked home a rebound of a Lindsey Syzmanski cross 6:29 into the second half before Lindsey Szymanski sent a rifle from the right side towards the far upper corner that the Hilltopper keeper got a hand on but couldn’t prevent from going in with just over five minutes remaining in the game.

Even though it took 13 minutes for the Wildcats to score, Conley felt that the Wildcats controlled the match from the opening kickoff.

“I thought that the way the girls moved the ball around, and the way we really shut them down was pretty special,” he said. “They had a couple of really good players and the goalie was fantastic. But they just didn't have any answers.”

Conley said for the second straight season the Cats have seen in the sectional final what it takes to get to state, and they’re going right back to work to try and get there next year.

“There's things we can learn from this and things we still need to do in the offseason to get better,” he said. “We'll be really young again next year, and we lose Lindsay and Lexi (Szymanski) and Liv (Nelson) and a few other players, but this program is not defined by two or three players. So hopefully those girls pass the torch and we can carry it on.”

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