MCFARLAND — The Sauk Prairie girls soccer team is going to be hurting for a bit — physically and emotionally.
The shorthanded Eagles left it all on the field Saturday at McFarland High School, but it wasn’t enough against a deep Oregon team that earned its fifth straight trip to the state tournament with a 1-0 win in a WIAA Division 2 sectional final.
“What a tremendous, tremendous bunch of girls,” Sauk Prairie coach Mike Rauls said after the loss. “This is really hard for them. ... To have the confidence to go toe-to-toe with Oregon in the first half, that was really good. ... They (Oregon) weren’t feeling good until the final bell rang. Our girls went toe-to-toe with them as long as we could. ... It just stings to get this far. It’s cliche that almost everyone’s season ends with a loss, but it does, and it hurts.
“We played our hearts out.”
Top-seeded Oregon (16-0-1) came in waves for 90 minutes, subbing out five-plus players at a time. Second-seeded Sauk Prairie (20-2-2) was working with a much thinner bench that forced many of the Eagles to play every minute just two days after Thursday’s 7-4 sectional semifinal win over Monona Grove.
“It’s really, really good for us,” junior captain Ella Schad said of Sauk Prairie’s ability to play with one of the best teams in the state despite the level of fatigue. “It proves that we are there athletically, and we have the ability to take it to them. We did have a bench, then a lot of people got injured, but we were able to adapt.”
“Our girls laid it all on the line,” Rauls said. “Our girls stood there and took the next wave. ... There’s no folding in these girls.”
The Eagles had the Panthers on the run with several first-half scoring opportunities, including a Katelyn Fishnick shot that was saved by Oregon goalkeeper Melia Moyer in the 22nd minute and a Camryn Ballweg shot that went wide in the 25th.
But it was the defensive effort that stood out for the Eagles, as Schad captained the back line while Bridget Fabian was solid in net. The senior goalkeeper made a diving save in the 43rd minute, giving up a rebound before recovering quickly to save a point-blank shot and keep the game scoreless going into halftime.
“I didn’t touch the ball for the first 43 minutes of the game and that kind of made me nervous because I was scared I wasn’t going to be ready when they did shoot,” said Fabian, who made seven saves on the night. “But that first save kind of just got me going for the rest of the game.”
Oregon brought Fabian plenty of pressure in the second half, getting a dangerous header, a Macie Cox shot off the crossbar, a shot off the side of the goal, a Fabian save and a free kick in the opening minutes.
But Fabian and the Eagles, who posted 16 shutouts this season, managed the pressure to keep Sauk Prairie in striking range of the second state appearance in school history — and first since 1999.
The Panthers dimmed those dreams in the 62nd minute, earning a corner kick that Brooklyn Kane redirected into the back of the net to give Oregon a 1-0 lead.
“We knew their corner kicks were going to be trouble,” Rauls said. “We marked them pretty good, but 90 minutes is a long time to hold them off. I don’t think we did anything wrong, but they attack the goal hard.”
Oregon took even more energy from the goal, creating several scoring chances in the immediate aftermath. But the Panthers only found the post and Fabian’s gloves, then had a goal taken away by an offsides penalty.
“We needed to contain and everybody on the team did that the full 90 minutes,” Schad said, noting that the Eagles lunged too much defensively early in the season. “It helped us not get beat off the dribble as much.”
“Ella is amazing,” Fabian said. “I’d get scored on a lot more often if it wasn’t for Ella.”
But Sauk Prairie couldn’t pull even against Oregon, last year’s state runner-up that has only given up five goals this spring.
Fishnick, who entered Saturday leading the state with 103 points and 45 goals, briefly broke free a couple times, but the Oregon defense closed quickly. One of Fishnick’s runs led to a free kick, which Schad put off the crossbar in the 68th minute. Junior captain Kelsey Selden also had a shot go over the goal, as Oregon held on for its 14th shutout of the season.
“We keep trying to fight,” Selden said of the Eagles’ mindset when they were trailing. “No matter what, just keep your head up and keep going for it. We all have one goal. We all know that we want to win, and we win as a team. It’s not just one person, or if they score on us it’s over. We all win together and we all lose together.”
Sauk Prairie ended the season with a 20-2-2 record, a runner-up finish in the Badger North Conference and its first regional title since 2011. Both of the Eagles’ losses came against teams who will be playing this week in Milwaukee, as Waunakee reached the Division 1 state tournament with Saturday’s 3-2 win over Middleton.
“It’s tough... you work and you build, you achieve some things... but we lost,” Rauls said. “It’s going to be hard, but the values and the work that they put in... the togetherness they showed all season long... it was a special group of girls.”
The Eagles will graduate seven seniors — Fabian, Ballweg, Lauren Frosch, Taylor Breininger, Riley Breunig, Katie Mack and Katie Yanke. The group helped turn the Sauk Prairie program around, compiling a 6-10-3 record as freshmen in 2016 before going 10-7 in 2017 and 15-5-2 in 2018. They took it a step further this year.
“We were just talking about, kind of changing things at Sauk,” Rauls said of how the program is trending in the right direction, something that was evident when he thanked the Sauk Prairie ball girls for helping out Saturday night. “I said ‘thanks for coming’ and they said ‘well, when we’re in the sectional final we want ball chasers here for us.’ So they’re building that in the community. There’s younger girls that look up to these girls.”
“Just the togetherness,” Fabian, who will attend the University of Minnesota in the fall, said of what she’ll remember about this team. “I can always hear it on the field when other teams are yelling at their teammates. Someone will do something wrong and they’ll get criticized for it, but when someone on this team does something wrong they get built back up. ... It’s just a different environment and I really enjoyed it.”
“Take one for the team,” Schad said. “If it’s going to benefit the team, it’s going to benefit the team it’s going to benefit you too.”
The Eagles will carry that mentality into the offseason. They expect to be right back in the mix next year, as first-team All-Badger North selections Fishnick, Schad and Selden all return along with second-team pick Faith Holler and honorable mention selection Macy Breunig for a roster that knows they can return to this level.
“We’ll be back next year,” Selden said.
Sauk Prairie 0 0 — 0
Oregon 0 1 — 1
Second half: Kane, 61:20.
Saves: Sauk Prairie (Fabian) 7, Oregon (Moyer) 2.