Tough bounce interrupts Ranger run

Olivia Corya/The Herald
Forest Park’s Max Rickelman struggled to watch after Evansville Mater Dei scored the lone goal that decided Saturday’s Class 1A regional soccer final at Fort Branch. The Wildcats scored with less than eight minutes remaining, ending Forest Park’s season with a 1-0 defeat as the Rangers played in the regional final for the first time in program history. For a gallery of photos, click here.


By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

FORT BRANCH — After his team’s Sept. 20 loss to Class 1A No. 4 Evansville Mater Dei, in which it squandered five goals without tallying one itself, Forest Park coach Brent Sicard met with his team’s three seniors.

To a group in the thick of a six-game losing streak, the message was simple: There is still reason to play.

It’s safe to say the idea was embraced.

Following that match, the Rangers eluded defeat in the final three games of the regular season to earn a share of the Pocket Athletic Conference crown and went into this weekend having already experienced the most successful tournament run in program history.

Forest Park entered Saturday’s regional championship against Mater Dei riding the same wave of energy and outmuscled the Wildcats for a substantial portion of the match. Yet one late, unforeseeable goal brought an abrupt end to the Rangers’ season.

As they had in preceding tournament wins over Sullivan and eighth-ranked Washington Catholic, the Rangers authored the match’s physical script. Stout defense held scoring opportunities in check, making the contest’s lone score all the more appropriate.

With fewer than eight minutes to play and the ball sputtering around the half line, Wildcat midfielder Adam Kissel booted it toward Forest Park’s net to relieve pressure. Aided by a backwind, the ball bounded twice before leaping over surprised Ranger goalkeeper Blake Altmann and into the net.

“I’ve watched a lot of soccer, and I’ve seen top goalkeepers in the world (to whom) the same thing happened,” Sicard said. “That’s just how soccer goes.”

The Ranger defense — playing without injured starting defender Cole Henke — maintained the ferocity that had permitted it to suffocate Sullivan 4-0 in Thursday’s semifinal. The isolated incident and a few close-call corner kicks notwithstanding, the Wildcats’ scoring chances came at a premium.

“I didn’t feel they were really threatening us, other than the corner kicks,” Sicard said. “It’s not like they were down our throats or anything. I felt like we were right there to win the game.”

If anything, the difference-maker for the Rangers (9-9-2) was their psyche, Sicard said. Taking down Washington Catholic, another ranked foe which also trounced Forest Park 5-0 during the regular season, created belief that downing the Wildcats (11-7-3) was likewise an attainable feat.

Ranger midfielder Ben Englert, whose play in the two teams’ first meeting was one of the few bright spots in Sicard’s eyes, epitomized Forest Park’s blue-collar credo. Englert barreled through tackles, the impacts of which often sent him and his counterpart to the turf.

“We knew Mater Dei didn’t like physicality, and being a ranked opponent, we decided to put everything out there, try and get in their heads, just do whatever we could,” said Englert, who at one point was sent entirely airborne from crashing into a brawny Wildcat defender, his body parallel to the ground. “Just get physical. Nothing to lose.”

Furthering the fervor was Spenser Sermersheim, who gave forward Adam Braunecker a breather partway through the first half. After a Ranger defender lofted a ball forward, the diminutive striker elevated to challenge a towering Wildcat also in aerial pursuit. Sermersheim lost the challenge, but embodied the Ranger resistance.

The three-player senior class of Kyle Lubbehusen, Aaron Schuler and Braunecker was the smallest Sicard has coached in his six years in Ferdinand. While uncertainty loomed prior to the season and at a few points within it, the Rangers’ late-season push put any further question to rest.

“They played like they wanted it,” Sicard said. “You could tell by their faces. They didn’t want it to end.”

Even after surrendering the eventual game-winner, the Rangers persisted.

Possessing the ball just outside the Wildcat 18-yard box, the Rangers drew a foul, giving Braunecker a crack from 20 yards away. The ball lasered off his foot, only to find a Wildcat’s head before reaching goal. Two minutes later, Altmann confidently batted away a ball played into Forest Park’s box, while the ensuing counterattack presented the Rangers with another set piece from 30 yards away with a minute left.

Austin Bromm delivered a service to the back post, where Joel Weyer’s header scooted wide of the goal.

Once again, it was a complete-game effort, anchored by the senior class, Sicard said.

For Englert, the departing three have provided elements that are nearly irreplaceable.

“It’s going to be hard to replace their shoes with leadership,” Englert said. “We’ve got a bunch of juniors (who are) going to be seniors next year, and they’ll do great with it, too. But it’s going to be hard to replace that leadership that’s leaving us. Adam’s goal scoring, Schuler’s physicality, just Lub’s stopping everything that’s anywhere near him, making miracle shots. It’s just going to be tough to replace.”

Equally challenging is concluding a career alongside his two fellow seniors, Lubbehusen said.

“It’s like a family,” he said. “It’s like I know everything they do and they know everything I do. Brothers, basically.”

Considering the team’s midseason funk, the notion of finishing on such an upswing will remain this group’s defining quality, Sicard said.

“Just resilient,” the coach said when asked what he’ll remember about this team. “I don’t know many teams that would have been able to take the beating we took in the middle of the season and still turn it around and be able to accomplish what they did. That’s what I’m going to look back on. That’s how I’m going to define this group, is their resiliency.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




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