The Baraboo prep boys soccer team has faced this hurdle before.
It's been just two years since the Thunderbirds were eliminated from Badger North Conference title contention with a late-season loss to powerhouse Mount Horeb.
The T-Birds (11-2-1, 3-0-1 Badger North) will take another crack at a league crown when they head to Mount Horeb (7-4-1, 4-0-0) Thursday night for a chance to take over the conference lead with a week to play in the regular season.
"It's going to be a battle," Baraboo coach Tyler Lang said after Tuesday's 5-0 conference win at Reedsburg. "I think it's going to come down to tactics and who wants it. I'm looking forward to it."
Lang was an assistant coach for Nathanael Bresson the last time the T-Birds and Vikings were both contenders when they met. Baraboo was enjoying a breakthrough year, entering the Oct. 3, 2017 matchup against Mount Horeb with a 10-1-2 record, including 3-1-1 in Badger North play. The Vikings were in their usual position, sitting at 5-0 in the conference and looking to put the finishing touches on their eighth straight Badger North title.
Baraboo took the Vikings to the limit, overcoming a pair of one-goal deficits before Mount Horeb's Jaden Neumann clinched the conference championship with a 75th-minute penalty kick that capped a 3-2 win.
"We've just got to be smart on the ball and off the ball," Baraboo senior co-captain Max Koenig said of what he has learned from past games against Mount Horeb. "They make a lot of smart runs and have good soccer knowledge and all kinds of sweat goals, just hitting it across and the goalie's got nothing. We've just got to make sure that everyone knows to be smart."
The 2017 T-Birds went on to finish 12-5-3 overall, including 3-2-2 to take fourth in the Badger North, in a season that ended with a 3-0 loss at Monona Grove in the WIAA Division 2 regional finals. Baraboo hasn't finished in the top three in the conference standings since going 2-2-1 to take third in 2013.
The T-Birds are looking to change that this year, as they're entering the homestretch tied with Sauk Prairie for second in the Badger North, trailing only the Vikings. After the Mount Horeb game, Baraboo will close out the regular season with home game Tuesday against Beaver Dam (1-4) and an Oct. 18 game at Waunakee (3-1).
“I’m loving it here in Baraboo," said junior forward Hunter Bielicki, who moved to the area from Ohio in the offseason. "It’s definitely a fun group of players to play with. They all seem really competitive and we know we have a shot at winning conference.”
Influx of talent
The veteran T-Birds, who were part of an 8-10-1 record last year, knew that this season would be different from day one. Senior goalkeeper Will Gunnell, a co-captain and a two-year starter, was asked when he knew the T-Birds could be a contender.
"As soon as the season started," Gunnell said. "We looked at our talent and said, 'This is as good as it was our sophomore year, if not better.' Maybe not as a team, but as individuals. And then together as a group, we've just been able to click and play well together. Just since the first day, I knew this year was going to be special."
It showed from the season opener, when the typically low-scoring T-Birds scored five first-half goals in a 7-1 win over Watertown on Aug. 27. Aside from back-to-back shutout losses to Madison La Follette and Madison East in early September, the T-Birds haven't slowed down since. Baraboo is averaging 4.79 goals per game on the season, well up from 2.95 goals per game in 2017 and 1.7 goals per game in 2018.
The T-Birds hit the three-goal mark just four times in 19 games last season. They have scored at least five goals in eight of their 14 games this fall, thanks to an influx of talent that has freed everyone up on the field.
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Last year, Oscar Fernandez-Hydzik was asked to create everything in the midfield as well as be the goal scorer. This year, the senior co-captain and three-time All-Badger North selection still has the ball on his foot, but he has a number of targets to spread it around to. Bielicki arrived this summer, while freshman twins Ronaldo and Johan Lopez have also brought unique skills and an attacking mentality to the high school program. All four playmakers have scored double-digit goals this fall.
The variety of options should help a Baraboo team that has struggled to score down the stretch each of the last two seasons. The T-Birds were shut out in their last four games of 2018, while they were blanked in three of their final four games in 2017.
"That's something we've talked about," Lang said of Baraboo spreading the ball around. "Being unselfish and trying to set your teammate up for the best opportunity. If you have a shot for a second and it goes away, pass it off and look to create. It's been showing so far this season, so we need to keep playing with that mentality."
Defense matching offense
The same mentality exists on the back end, where the T-Birds have allowed just 15 goals in 14 games this season — eight of which came in their two losses. The defense has really come on as of late, posting six straight shutouts to give them seven on the year, all with Gunnell in goal.
"We started the year a little shaky, but lately it's just been being on the same page, communicating and playing really well together," Gunnell said of the defensive effort.
"I'd say we just had to find our footing, because none of us have played the positions that we're playing before," added Koenig, who is playing in the center of the defense. "Now that we've got some games under our belt, we're jelling together."
Defense has typically been Baraboo's bread and butter, so they entered the season with the DNA of a shutdown team. It's come together, with Gunnell as the last line of defense.
"He's really the voice on the field," Lang said. "He just brings a lot of energy to the team. He's positive and makes sure guys are held to a high standard. Will has been great. ... We've adjusted well and they've been really connected back there. They're on the same page and it's showing."
Putting pieces together
The T-Birds are going to have to be on the same page for 90 minutes if they're going to knock off Mount Horeb. The Vikings, who notched a 4-0 home win over Baraboo last October, haven't lost a conference game since they suffered 2-1 loss at Waunakee on Sept. 18, 2018. The Warriors went unbeaten in conference play last year to end the Vikings' eight-year run at the top of the Badger NOrth.
The Vikings, who are coming off Tuesday's 2-0 win at Beaver Dam, have been tested as of late. They played Monona Grove to a 1-1 tie on Sept. 26 before losing back-to-back games to McFarland and Oregon on Sept. 28 and Oct. 3.
But the T-Birds know they'll have to play a complete game in order to enter next week controlling their destiny in the Badger North.
"They're a good team," Gunnell said of Mount Horeb. "We've just got to make sure we go 110% all game. Our communication has to be good and everything's just got to click. I think we have a great chance depending on how we show up."