Rangers crown their late-season surge

Photos by Chet Strange/Special to The Herald
Forest Park’s Demi Jahn, center, hugged teammates Jasmine Jacob and Shelby Louden after the Class 1A girls soccer sectional championship Saturday in Bretzville. The Rangers punched in two second-half goals to dump North Harrison 2-0 and claim the program’s second sectional title and first since 2008. They’ll trek to Lawrenceburg for Saturday’s regional and battle the fourth-ranked Tigers on their home field at 6 p.m. For a gallery of photos, click here.

By JOSEPH FANELLI
Herald Sports Writer

BRETZVILLE — In the waning moments of Saturday’s Class 1A girls soccer sectional championship in Bretzville, a voice came over the PA system, reminding those in attendance to remain off the field until after the championship trophy was awarded.

Lueken

And as the scoreboard clock reached zero seconds later, that announcement was promptly ignored.

Students and parents stormed the field at Cedar Crest Intermediate School to join in the celebration with Forest Park players, who had erupted moments before and were mobbed with cheers and hugs near midfield after earning a decisive 2-0 victory over North Harrison in the sectional final, the program’s second-ever championship. The Rangers win capped off more than 250 minutes of soccer during three games in five days that included an emphatic sudden-death penalty kicks victory against nemesis Heritage Hills, a thrashing of Salem in round two and a cathartic victory over a North Harrison squad that beat the Rangers in the regular season. As senior Rachel Lueken received the sectional trophy from Forest Park athletic director Doug Louden, her first after sniffing the title three years in a row, tears welled in her eyes as she and her fellow seniors erupted into full-on screams.

Knies

“I just wanted it in my hands,” said Lueken, with the orange netting from the Forest Park goal draped over her shoulders. “I had to have it. I’ve been waiting for three years and it’s been stolen from us the past two years by Heritage Hills. We just had to get it.”

It was an exciting moment for a team that found itself 1-6 after seven games. And to think, almost 40 minutes before, it had started so poorly.

The Rangers (9-9-1) drifted their way to halftime with a scoreless tie in a first half defined by physical play and penalties. Freshman phenom Madisyn Hunt, who has been dominant at times this season with 30-plus goals, was quieted by a Lady Cat defense that gave her little room to operate. In the moments she was able to create some space, her four first-half shots were easily grabbed by goalie Shaylah Neal. Both sides received yellow cards in the first 40 minutes and a disgruntled Ranger team turned its frustration inward.

“(Coach Amanda Sicard) pretty much told us, ”˜We will lose if we don’t start talking,’” Lueken said. “We were not getting along the first half. Girls were yelling at each other, which is never good. … We just pulled through.”

“I just told them, ”˜You have to pull this together,’” Sicard said about her halftime message. “Forty minutes left and we’ve worked this hard this week and to throw it away on little stuff that’s upsetting us; you cannot get upset about that. I told them, ”˜If you fail once, fail twice, fail three times — the fourth time you still have to make that run because it can go through and you’ll be there on the goal.’”

The message seemed to work as a calmer, smarter Ranger team entered the second half. After being content to trade checks and elbows, Forest Park began to play smarter, moving off the ball well as its midfield controlled possession. It finally paid off when Hunt was fouled about 30 yards from the North Harrison goal. On the direct kick, Hunt fired a shot that bounced off the left goal post. In the aftermath, with Neal out of position, freshman Shelby Louden — whom Sicard had moved from midfield to forward in the second half — crashed the net and banged home the first Ranger goal at the 35-minute mark.

Forest Park’s Madisyn Hunt, right, jostled with North Harrison’s Tayler Smith for possession of the ball. Hunt was held scoreless Saturday, but Shelby Louden’s rebound of Hunt’s shot that hit the post supplied the Rangers with their first goal of the contest.

“I think that (goal) really lifted our spirits,” Lueken said. “Everything just got a lot better. We started talking a lot more, playing a lot better.”

Twenty minutes later, with the Ranger offense humming, Madison Knies received the ball in the middle of the field. She dribbled right past one defender, made a move left past another and, finding herself alone just inside the 18-yard box, ripped a shot into the left corner of the goal, giving the Rangers a commanding 2-0 lead.

“I said, ”˜I’m going,’” Knies said on her game-sealing score. “”˜I’m dribbling through anyone and I’m going to get a shot and I’m going to make it.”

The goal came as a relief to Lueken, who had missed a penalty kick at the 15-minute mark of the first half. Lueken made up for it with some stellar defense, though, anchoring a unit that gave up just one goal in the entire sectional. Ranger keeper Tabitha Steckler also added some stellar play with two clutch saves in the final five minutes to secure the victory.

The win put an exclamation point on a season that started out shakily for the Rangers. A fresh crop of talent was received uneasily at first and the tension and lack of playing time together resulted in a disastrous first third of the season. Sicard, though, pointed to a team meeting after the Rangers’ 3-2 lost to North Harrison (12-4) two months ago as the decisive moment in which the team’s attitude and play turned around.

“We have so much talent on our team, it was just about getting the girls to work tougher, to accept other girls’ talents,” Sicard said.

“Ever since (the meeting after North Harrison) is when the girls just sort of realized, ”˜OK, this is how Coach is going to be, this is how Coach wants to play, this is what she expects of us.’”

Forest Park will make a three-hour trip east on Saturday to face No. 4 Lawrenceburg (14-3-2) on its home field in the single-match regional. This past Saturday, Sicard and the Rangers said that night would be the time to celebrate before shifting focus back to their next contest. Until then, they could relax and enjoy a championship and at least one more game.

“We just persevered because we knew in the end, this is when it counted,” Lueken said. “We were going to play our hearts out as one team no matter whether we started the season 1-6 or 6-1, because all that matters now is we have the championship.”

Contact Joseph Fanelli at jfanelli@dcherald.com.




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