RICE LAKE — The Oredockers are now just one win away from returning to the WIAA state tournament for the first time in four years after the No. 2 seed Ashland High School girls soccer team pulled off a dramatic upset win over No. 1 seed Rice Lake in a Division 3 sectional semifinal match Thursday evening.
The teams finished the match tied 1-1 at the end of regulation, and each side scored a late goal in the second overtime period to force a penalty shootout, which the Oredockers won 4-3.
"We deserved to win the game," AHS head coach Jonny BeBeau said. "We made it difficult on ourselves by not finishing our chances, but we never gave up. I'm just so proud of the girls for sticking with it and playing hard the entire game, including overtime."
Ashland (20-2-1) controlled the tempo and saw the lion's share of chances throughout the match, but Rice Lake struck first with a goal in the 70th minute.
Persistence paid off for the Oredockers, however, as sophomore midfielder Claire Custer took possession and fed the ball to classmate Alex Pieterek, who stuck the equalizer in the corner with just eight minutes left in regulation.
The hosts scored another goal to take another late lead with just six minutes remaining in the second period of overtime, but once again the Oredockers clawed back into the match, with Custer taking down Pieterek's cross into the goal area before directing the ball into the back of the net to tie the game again with just over a minute left to play in overtime, and sending the game to penalties.
"In the second overtime they scored with six minutes left, and I think most teams would have folded at that point, but we didn't give up," BeBeau said. "We've practiced [penalty kicks] everyday for the last three weeks because this is the time of year when they come into play, and you've got to be able to put your PK away under pressure, and the composure paid off."
The teams remained well-matched throughout the opening segment of the ensuing shootout, with both sides making three of their first five spot kicks, but on the Warriors' sixth attempt, Ashland goalkeeper Zoe Pearce came up with the save that changed the game.
"It was a little nerve-racking," Pearce said. "I haven't been playing goalie very long and I didn't want to lose it in front of my team. I did have one PK on me in our last conference game, but I was really nervous. I just watched them closely and dove and hoped that I hit it. Her ball was kind of slower and it wasn't super far, so I knew I was going to get it, but it was still scary just in case I didn't get it."
Gina Kempf, perhaps the Oredockers' most versatile player over the course of this season, then stepped up and dispatched the decisive penalty shot to send Ashland through to the sectional final.
"Honestly I didn't know if I scored we would win the game," Kempf said. "I went up there all confident and just thought about it like it was practice. I got my spot on the goal where I usually take a PK, and I made it and the ref blew the whistle, and I just was so emotional that game. I was happy but I was crying at the same time. We won against Rice Lake, and that's a big deal."
The Oredockers are now just one victory away from qualifying for state, and a familiar opponent is all that stands in the way, with Ashland set to meet fellow No. 2 seed Medford today in Eau Claire.
Ashland and Medford have met once already this season in Great Northern Conference play when the Oredockers traveled to defeat the Raiders 4-0 back in April, so the Ashland girls should be feeling fairly confident about their chances to advance.
"We like the matchup," BeBeau said. "We're familiar with their team, but of course you've still got to play a big game every game at this level. The sectional final can give a team a lot of energy, so we just need to make sure we come out with intensity. But if we play like we're capable of and like we did throughout conference, we'll be in good shape."
The match was originally scheduled to be played in Somerset, but both squads and their fan bases should be better served by the decision to move the game to Eau Claire Memorial High School.
"I'm just looking for a closer neutral site for our fan base," BeBeau said. "Somewhere between us and somewhere our fans can travel. We had amazing support down in Rice Lake. The ashland fans were incredible. In my opinion they were louder, and the girls fed off that energy. Even when we were down our fans were still just incredible."
The Oredockers will be hoping for more of the same when the WIAA Division 3 sectional final between Ashland and Medford kicks off today at 1 p.m.