Clutch moments send Rangers to regional

Photos by Brittney Lohmiller/The Herald
Forest Park's Payton Dilger, left, hugs Abby Eckert before the start of Saturday's sectional championship game against Vincennes Rivet at Cedar Crest Intermediate School in Bretzville. After being tied 3-3 at the end of regulation and two overtime periods, the Rangers defeated the Patriots 5-4 in penalty kicks for their first sectional championship since 2013. For more photos from the championship match, click here.


BRETZVILLE — Winning a sectional championship can bring a wide array of feelings — from simple happiness to pure jubilation.

For Forest Park girls soccer head coach Brad Weyer? Well, this one feels like it was a long time coming.

“It’s just a real big sense of relief to be honest with you,” said Weyer following the Class 1A No. 14 Rangers thrilling 5-4 victory over No. 5 Vincennes Rivet in penalty kicks following a 3-3 score after regulation and two overtime periods. “I’ve felt like we’ve had some really good teams who have had the potential to win the sectional the past few years but we couldn’t quite get over the hump.”

There were times in Saturday’s battle in Bretzville where it looked like the Rangers would be stopped short of a sectional championship, something that had eluded them since 2013. But, things started to point the Rangers way at the 16:12 mark in the second half.

Trailing 3-2, Kenlee Gehlhausen shot a free kick down near the goal where a few Forest Park players tried to kick it in and tie the game. However after it bobbled around the goal for a little while, senior Claire Mehling finally was able to give it a light tap and tie the match at 3-3. For Mehling, she believed she was just at the right spot at the right time.

“Yeah, that was pretty lucky,” Mehling said with a laugh.

But the biggest moments of the game were still yet to come for the Rangers. After neither team was able to score in the two seven-minute overtime periods, that meant that penalty kicks would be needed to determine a sectional champion.

Forest Park freshman goalkeeper Madison Wathen admits that she was rather nervous when she realized a sectional champion was going to be crowned based off of a shootout.

“Honestly, I was like ‘Oh, no’,” Wathen said. “I knew that I wasn’t very good at (stopping penalty kicks) but luckily we worked on them a lot and I just tried my best and it paid off.”

Denai Sicard got the first penalty kick to go for the Rangers but Rivet made their first one as well to tie things up at 1-1. After the Rangers missed their second attempt, Rivet took a 2-1 lead but Ava Hamilton quickly tied things back up at 2-2 for Forest Park.

Coming down to the final kicker, Mehling made her penalty kick to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead but once again Rivet answered to tie things up at 3-3. That meant one thing — sudden death PK’s.

With their season on the line, freshmen Payton Dilger and Emma Grundhoefer came up huge by successful knocking through their penalty kicks to give Forest Park a 5-4 lead. Then, Wathen made one last save to clinch the sectional championship victory for the Rangers.

Forest Park's Claire Mehling works to block a kick from Vincennes Rivet's Katie Niehaus during Saturday's sectional championship game. Mehling's tap-in goal with 16:12 left in the second half tied the game and ended up proving to be vital as the Rangers would go on to win penalty kicks. For more photos from the championship match, click here.

What was going through Wathen’s mind on the final save attempt?

“I just have to stop this shot,” Wathen said. “There was no doubt about it — I knew I couldn’t let (the shot) go through because this (game) means so much to everyone, not just me.”

Weyer added: “I used to coach Heritage Hills boys back in the day and I was assigned the task of goalkeeper training so goalies have always had a soft spot in my heart. Me and (Wathen) have worked one-on-one and her footwork is incredible and her reflexes and reaction are just well beyond her years. She was very detrimental in the win.”

The role the freshmen have played this year for the Rangers has been very critical on a team that has just one senior. From Wathen’s goalkeeping to the penalty kicks from Grundhoefer and Payton Dilger to strong play in other areas from players such as Abbie Jahn and Leah Dilger, the class of 2022 has impressed Weyer a ton and reminds of a group he saw a few years ago entering the Ranger program.

“Two years ago we had an incredible freshman class and I’m seeing similarities between our junior class when they were freshmen and this year’s freshman class,” Weyer said. “It makes me so happy because I know where our junior class is now and I know these freshmen are only going to improve. They show great poise, they play well beyond their years and their fitness is out of this world.”

Forest Park’s first goal in Saturday’s win was scored by Sicard while their second goal was scored by Emma Louden. Mehling had the third and final goal for the Rangers in the victory. Gehlhausen had an assist for the Rangers in the win. For Vincennes Rivet, Abby Niehaus had two goals for the Patriots while Katie Niehaus scored the other goal.

With the victory, the Rangers will face Class 1A No. 11 Oldenburg Academy in the semifinal of next weekend’s regional round in Bretzville at 10 a.m. With a victory, the Rangers would face either No. 2 Evansville Mater Dei or No. 9 Providence in the sectional championship.

But for right now? The Rangers just want to enjoy this one a little bit longer.

“I had never won a sectional championship in soccer before and it’s just so awesome,” Mehling said. “I just can’t describe how happy I am right now.”

Wathen added: “I haven’t won anything this big before so it’s all just so surreal — I don’t even know what to say.”

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