It's been a bit of a wait, but the Ashland High School girls soccer team is state-bound once again.
The Oredockers defeated Great Northern Conference foe Medford 5-0 Saturday in Eau Claire to clinch the fifth sectional championship in program history, and in the process qualified for the WIAA state tournament for the first time since 2015.
For the three seniors on the team, just getting to this point was half the battle, and one they knew they had to win.
"Finally," AHS senior defender and captain Abby Koehler said. "It took four years. The only class that didn't go? We didn't want that."
Koehler and fellow seniors Annika Herlevi and Justine Barningham were just 8th-graders when the Oredockers last made the trip to Milwaukee, but in some ways they were already part of the team, just waiting in the wings.
"We would go watch their games when we were at our practices," Herlevi said.
"I just remember looking up to them and wanting to be that someday," Barningham said. "And then we waited three years in high school and we're finally here."
Ashland (21-2-1) often cruised to victory in matches this year and even won the sectional title fairly comfortably, with junior midfielder Lily Jablonski and sophomore striker Alex Pieterek combining for five goals while the defense posted its 17th clean sheet of the season. But the Oredockers can definitely expect more of an uphill battle when they return to state this week after a four-year absence.
Ashland comes in with the No. 4 seed, and opens the tournament against the overall top seed in Division 3 with Catholic Memorial on Thursday.
The Crusaders (23-4-1) have won more championship titles than any other program in the state, with 10 all told, and they won six straight from 2012-17.
They haven't missed a state tournament since 2005, and they've reached the state final in all but one of the past 14 years.
"They've got a great program and a great coach," AHS head coach Jonny BeBeau said. "That's all there is to it."
It's clear the Oredockers have a major challenge in front of them in Thursday's opener, but they've been able to overcome every other challenge they've faced so far this season, and they might even have a number of factors working in their favor this time around.
For one, the two sides match up very well statistically.
Catholic Memorial has scored 102 goals while allowing just 21 this season.
Ashland, meanwhile, has scored 99 goals this year and conceded only 12.
The Crusaders have 16 shutouts through 28 games, while the Oredockers have posted clean sheets in 17 of their 24 matches.
Both teams also went undefeated in conference play this year, so there's not much separating the two sides on paper.
Ashland has a profusion of talent throughout the roster as well, and incredible balance and maturity for squad with only three seniors in the ranks.
The team has found much of its success this year relying on its youthful exuberance in the attack bolstered by its senior leadership in the back.
These girls also seem to have taken camaraderie to new heights.
It's hard to imagine anything better for team chemistry than regular karaoke competitions on the return legs of victorious road trips.
"I wouldn't want to go with any other team," Barningham said. "We all have such good bonds. It's awesome to go with them."
Ashland also stands to benefit from the past state experiences of volunteer assistant coach Kaiya Voldberg, who herself made three straight appearances at the state tournament with the Oredockers between 2013 and 2015.
Voldberg, who also played four years at Northland College, knows just how the girls are feeling heading to Milwaukee for the first time.
"A lot of nerves and excitement, because it's a whole different thing when you're at state," she said.
She also has an idea of what the team might need to do in order to avoid another early exit.
"Just play their game and not get too nervous about it, because I think that's what kind of got us, when you're not used to playing at that level."
Ashland is still looking for its first-ever win at state, and you better believe these girls are hungry for it, and eager to outperform their predecessors.
"We want to win," Herlevi said. "At least one game."
Ashland is the only public school left at this stage of the tournament, and the Oredockers are the clear underdogs in this fight against the top-ranked team in the state, but with the composure and cohesion this year's team has shown, just about anything is possible with everything on the line.
"We're going to give them everything we've got," BeBeau said. "I imagine they're overlooking us a little bit, but that's fine. We like it."
The WIAA Division 3 girls soccer state semifinal match between Ashland and Catholic Memorial kicks off Thursday at 11 a.m. at the Uihlein Soccer Park in Milwaukee.