Madison Edgewood junior goalkeeper Jamila Hamdan entered this girls soccer season believing the Crusaders, while young, had talent and a wealth of potential.

“We knew we were capable of becoming a great team,” Hamdan said. “But we didn’t take that for granted and think that we had anything in the bag from the start. We knew we could be here, but we didn’t think we would be here. We wanted to continue to work hard in practices and make the most of any opportunities we were given.”

After a 1-4-0 start against tough competition, the intensity of the Crusaders’ practices increased, the level of play defensively and on the attack evolved and the progress made was a “steady incline,” as senior forward and leading scorer Brita Hovde put it.

“To the credit of the team, they realized there was work to put in,” Edgewood coach Chris Martinelli said. “They are great responding within our training sessions to being challenged. … They wanted to be a really good team and they were aware of the work that was needed to do that.”

Edgewood went on an 11-0-2 unbeaten streak that included a victory over Mount Horeb and a tie with Oregon — two perennial powers and highly ranked teams in the state.

“After Mount Horeb and Oregon, I think there was a change in attitude,” Hovde said. “We were more fired up.”

Said Hamdan, a University of Wisconsin recruit: “We proved to ourselves in those games that we can compete with some of the best teams in the state. … While we gained a lot of confidence, we know the job is never finished.”

The Crusaders (14-5-2), No. 2 in Division 3 in the Wisconsin Soccer Coaches Association state rankings, wound up sharing the Badger South Conference crown with Oregon and earning a top seed in the WIAA Division 3 playoffs.

Edgewood began the postseason last week, dispatching 16th-seeded Arcadia/Independence 10-0 (as 10 players scored) and eighth-seeded Monroe 7-0.

Fifth-seeded Lodi, which has a potent attack, is next for the Crusaders in a sectional semifinal tonight. It is a loaded sectional that also includes third-seeded and fifth-ranked Mount Horeb and second-seeded and fourth-ranked Belleville/New Glarus playing in the other semifinal.

The team that survives this “Group of Death,” a phrase World Cup aficionados like to use, clearly will have earned its spot at next week’s state tournament.

“Our sectional is super tough,” said senior center midfielder Rachel Thoma, in her second year at Edgewood after moving from Los Alamos, New Mexico, known as the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

“Three of the top five teams in the state are in our sectional, but we are handling it pretty well. Being the No. 1 seed is super exciting for our program.”

Thoma — whose brother, Andy Thoma, plays professional soccer for the Vancouver Whitecaps — enters the Lodi match feeling good.

“I’m so confident in our team and everyone’s ability,” Rachel Thoma said.

Martinelli, in his 20th season as Edgewood’s coach, said the Crusaders strive for high rankings and seeds and are proud of such recognition, but with such acclaim comes a responsibility.

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“The number in front of your school doesn’t entitle you to anything,” he said. “It is what you do on the field that day that allows you to continue to play or not.

“Sometimes, the game itself just ends up tripping you up.”

Hamdan, whom Martinelli calls an exceptional goalkeeper, called it a privilege to net a top seed.

“We are really taking it one (match) at a time and not overlooking anybody,” said Hamdan, who has 11 shutouts. “Look at the other divisions; there have been a lot of upsets. It’s about respecting everybody. Not getting ahead of ourselves is super important.”

Hovde, who topped Edgewood in scoring as a sophomore and junior, leads the Crusaders with 19 goals and 11 assists, followed by sophomore Jordyn Rothwell (15 goals, eight assists) and Thoma (six goals, six assists). Hovde’s competitive spirit and work ethic make her a leader by example, Martinelli said.

“(Hovde) has been dynamic,” said Martinelli, whose roster includes three seniors. “She’s a really good leader for us on the field. She’s a really good rallying point for our team. It’s been enjoyable to watch her grow up over the last four years.”

Hovde, who plans to attend the University of Colorado, has had a senior year to remember. She played No. 3 singles for Edgewood, which won the Division 2 state team tennis title for the second consecutive season in the fall; she was a key reserve on the Crusaders’ Division 3 state championship basketball team, including scoring a career-best 14 points in the state semifinal victory, a performance she termed “an out-of-body experience;” and she has led Edgewood to its sectional semifinal berth in soccer.

“I’ve been very pleased,” said Hovde, a soccer captain with Hamdan. “I wouldn’t have anticipated it. It’s been quite a ride.”

It is a ride Hovde hopes will continue.

Contact Jon Masson at jmasson@madison.com.