By STUART GROSKREUTZ – Stillwater Gazette
Stillwater is hoping to bank on some prior experiences when facing perennial power and defending state champion Blake in Wednesday’s semifinals of the girls’ lacrosse state tournament at Chanhassen High School.
The third-seeded Ponies (14-2), who are making their second consecutive appearance at state, lost two games by a combined five points at state a year ago and were soundly defeated by Blake 13-4 earlier this season – learning experiences they hope will make a difference in their second attempts at turning around each.
"We know Blake is the defending state champion and we played them once this year so we’re familiar with how strong of a team they are," Stillwater coach Rick Reidt said. "They really took it to us the majority of that game and I think it was really the turning point of this season. We spent a lot of time looking at the film of the Blake game and everybody could see what we needed to do different to be successful."
The Ponies moved some players into different positions and made some additional personnel changes and have won 10 in a row since that loss to Blake on April 28.
There were just four players who saw significant playing time in last year’s state tournament who graduated a year ago, but they were significant when you consider they were top defenders Emily Norkol and Emily Gould and leading scorers Sammi Reiter and Hannah Dickman, who combined for 159 goals and 45 assists.
"The majority of our team was starters last year," Reidt said. "Three-fourths of that team is returning, so that helps a lot. I think the experience of last year will help us out. In both games (last year) our first half wasn’t as strong as our second half and our team knows you have to play a complete game against a good team and make the sacrifices necessary to make it competitive."
Stillwater is led in scoring by junior Dana Almquist with 80 goals and 14 assists, while five other Ponies have scored 20 or more goals, including Remi Larson (36), Kate Sheely (35), Katie Casto (23), Emma Wiessner (21) and Maggie Corman (21).
Those players have filled in nicely while replacing all the scoring that graduated last spring, which has not been a surprise for Reidt.
"Myself, I’m not surprised because I knew we had the majority of our team coming back," the coach said. "We have a really mature junior class and they all played a lot last year. They’re very athletic and they work hard so I’m not surprised at all that we’re back at the state tournament. They had to work hard to get there, but they’ve done the work."
The Ponies will have their hands full with a Blake team led by captain Meghan Bauer, who has racked up 71 goals and 26 assists. Bauer scored four times in the victory over Stillwater earlier this season.
Lydia Sutton ranks second for the Bears with 35 goals while Anne Slusser scored 28 and Nicole Kozlak provided 22.
The Bears (14-2) have won 13 of their last 14 games, with the loss a 14-8 setback against top-seeded Eden Prairie (16-0), which faces Apple Valley (13-4) in the earlier state semifinal game on Wednesday.
Stillwater is confident is will be better prepared this time around for the Bears, who have joined Eden Prairie in the finals all six years the Minnesota State High School League has conducted a state tournament.
"We made a lot of mistakes, (in the earlier game), but we’re playing a lot better on defense," Reidt said. "I think we’ve fixed those things.
"Some of the keys for us are, No. 1, passing the ball accurately and catching the ball. No. 2 is making sure that we’re going hard to the goal when we have one-on-one opportunities and No. 3 is that our defense is aggressive and double teaming any threats to the goal and just play strong body defense."
At Chanhassen High School
#1 Eden Prairie (16-0) vs. #4 Apple Valley (13-4), 6 p.m.
#2 Blake (14-2) vs. #3 Stillwater (14-2), 8 p.m.
To accommodate Blake’s graduation, the Bears will play on Thursday at 2 p.m., whether it’s the third-place or championship game, so Stillwater will play in the other game at 4 p.m.