The Baraboo prep boys soccer team got a monkey of its back Thursday.
After numerous close games the last few years, the Thunderbirds took down rival Sauk Prairie, 2-1, in a game between evenly-matched teams at Baraboo High School.
“(Sauk Prairie) Coach (Drew Kornish) afterwards was like, ‘I wish we could play you guys every game,’” Baraboo coach Tyler Lang said of the rivalry and respect that has developed between the Badger North Conference opponents. “It’s just so intense. Both teams get up for it and it’s always a back-and-forth contest. It was a great battle.”
It didn’t take long for Baraboo (8-1-1) to make a statement. It came from the foot of Ronaldo Lopez. The sophomore sent a free kick from near midfield over the head of Sauk Prairie goalkeeper Luke Baumgardt and into the back of the net to give the T-Birds a 1-0 lead 5 minutes, 15 seconds into the game.
“He is (a threat from everywhere),” Lang said of Lopez, who has shifted back into more of a defensive role this fall. “A lot of times, defenders don’t get the stats and the credit they deserve, but in my opinion, he would definitely be first-team all-conference if we were doing that this year. Just his awareness and tactical ability, and obviously his services. He’s a crucial part of our team.”
Lopez kept the pressure on immediately after scoring, continually peppering Baumgardt with long-range shots and feeding balls toward forwards Johan Lopez — the state’s leading scorer entering the day — and Ethan Uptagraw. That aggressiveness is no accident, as the T-Birds know teams can be vulnerable in the wake of a goal.
“We talk about how the next five minutes after scoring, that’s when you can get scored on or get complacent,” Lang said. “So we’re making sure we’re continuing that momentum and putting pressure on. The first five minutes of the half, last five minutes of the half and the five minutes after you score are the most crucial times.”
But it’s not easy to take down a Sauk Prairie (5-2-1) team that uses consistency and a stiff defense to continually compete atop the Badger North. The reigning Badger North champions showed their mettle again Thursday, fending off a number of Baraboo opportunities before striking in the 32nd minute.
Isaac Homar started and finished it. The junior midfielder found Quinn Baier in the middle of the field. Baier fed it to Eliot Carlson, who passed it back to Homar to finish it off and tie the game at 1 at the 31:32 mark.
It didn’t take long for Baraboo’s playmakers to respond. Uptagraw, a freshman, curled a corner kick into the middle of the box, and senior co-captain Hunter Bielicki ran onto it for a header that gave Baraboo a 2-1 lead at 39:54.
“Hunter’s best attribute is just being able to find space,” Lang said. “He’s worked on his heading ability this year and he has two or three (goals on headers) now. It’s really helpful, because Ethan provides some really accurate balls on the corners. Every corner is dangerous. Ethan just places it really well, wherever we have an open guy or space is opening up. And Hunter’s able to attack that.”
Baraboo goalkeeper Zach Huffaker made a save in the final minute to keep the T-Birds ahead going into halftime.
The high-powered T-Birds, who are averaging 4.1 goals per game this season, won it with their defense. They clamped down in the second half, holding off a late flurry of shots by a Sauk Prairie team that took the game the full 90 minutes.
“We talked about making sure we’re adapting to the situation,” Lang said. “We didn’t need to be spread out and pressing high, we needed to make sure we were getting guys behind the ball and staying compact while also putting pressure on their defense”
The Eagles put a shot off the crossbar in the 77th minute, then put one over on a free kick in the 86th. Huffaker came up big in the closing minutes, jumping on a pass from Joe Baumgardt to Quinn Baier in the middle of the box before saving a close-range shot in the 89th.
“Stellar,” Lang said of Huffaker, who notched his second shutout of the season. “Zach has stepped up really nicely and every game makes incredible saves, and every game is gaining more confidence.”
When the buzzer sounded, the T-Birds avenged a 1-0 loss at Sauk Prairie on Sept. 22 and ended a nine-game losing streak against their rivals, a stretch that dated back to Baraboo’s 1-0 win on Oct. 8, 2013. The teams had played to a 2-2 regular-season tie last year, while Sauk Prairie got the best of Baraboo in a 1-0 WIAA Division 2 regional final.
Both teams will play again Saturday, with Baraboo hosting Tomah and Sauk Prairie visiting Lake Mills.
“We’re seeing a lot of resilience, which is extremely impressive since it’s a pretty young team,” Lang said of what he’s seen from his team through 10 games. “We’re finding ways to make sure we get the job done. That early goal definitely helped get our confidence going right away, but we’ve just been playing really cohesively, making sure everyone’s on the same page and supporting one another. It’s been great to see.“
BARABOO 2, SAUK PRAIRIE 1
Sauk Prairie 1 0 — 1
Baraboo 2 0 — 2
First half: B — R. Lopez, 5:15. SP — Homar (Carlson), 31:32; B — Bielicki (Uptagraw), 39:54.
Shots: SP 16; B 15. Saves: SP (L. Baumgardt) 10; B (Huffaker) 10.
Get in the game with our Prep Sports Newsletter
Sent weekly directly to your inbox!