By STUART GROSKREUTZ – Stillwater Gazette
CHANHASSEN – Hoping to disrupt the Blake-Eden Prairie stranglehold on the girls’ lacrosse state tournament, Stillwater remains on the outside of that elusive club after falling to the Bears 17-10 in Wednesday’s state semifinals at Chanhassen High School.
The Bears and Eden Prairie, which blitzed Apple Valley 11-2 in the other semifinal on Wednesday, will meet in the state finals for the sixth straight season – which dates back to the inaugural Minnesota State High School League state tournament in 2007. The Ponies (14-3), who were stopped by Eden Prairie during their inaugural state tourney appearance a year ago, will face Apple Valley in the third-place game on Thursday at 4 p.m.
Blake handled the Ponies with little trouble in a 13-4 victory earlier this season, but Stillwater reeled off 10 straight wins since that setback and was far more competitive on Wednesday.
"The difference was Blake is a very skilled team, a high-powered team," Ponies coach Rick Reidt said. "I think we played a better game than the first game. It was a competitive game up to a certain point and our girls played hard to the very end. We had a couple of breakdowns on defense, but that happens when you play a very good team."
Stillwater led 4-3 after Dana Almquist scored her fourth goal in the first eight minutes into the game, but the Bears with five straight goals to grab an 8-4 lead. Katie Casto eventually stopped the run by scoring with 5:29 remaining, but Blake still carried a 10-6 lead into the intermission.
"I think that was the turning point," Reidt said of that key stretch in the first half.
Blake maintained possession in Stillwater’s end throughout most of that nearly 10-minute flurry when the Bears turned a one-goal deficit into a four-goal lead. Blake outshot the Ponies 21-13 in the first half, despite winning just seven of 17 draw controls.
"I think we played really well and Blake put up a really good fight," said Almquist, who scored seven of Stillwater’s 10 goals. "We came out hard and stayed with them most of the game so I’m really proud of the team. I think we got really tired when we played that long stretch of defense, but our mids really fought through it."
Blake did not let up while scoring the first two goals of the second half to build a 12-6 lead with 16 minutes remaining. Almquist tallied another goal for the Ponies, but Blake answered with three more tallies for a 15-7 advantage.
"Blake plays a really tough defense and they’re really aggressive and their team played well, really well," Reidt said.
Stillwater had its share of scoring chances, including two shots that deflected off the post and yet another that hit the crossbar.
"We missed some opportunities at the beginning of the second half and two or three shots that could have went in that didn’t," Reidt said.
"I think that’s what we need to work on is finishing on those," Almquist said. "We had those opportunities, we just need to work on finishing."
Outside of Almquist, the Ponies received a goal each from Katie Casto, Maggie Corman and Jennifer Jorgensen. Remi Larson also delivered two assists for Stillwater, which fell to 0-3 all-time in the state tournament.
It was Casto who drew the toughest defensive assignment with Meghan Bauer, who finished with six goals to lead the Bears – although she had plenty of support led by Anne Slusser with four goals and Jordan Chancellor and Lydia Sutton with two apiece.
"We weren’t trying to deny her the ball, we were just trying to play man-to-man defense," Reidt said. "She’s a great player, an All-American."
Marie Bonine turned away six shots in goal for the Ponies, including five during the first half to help keep them in the game.
"I thought our goaltender played well," Reidt said. "She made some big saves, but they’re just a fast team and that makes a big difference."
And though Blake and Eden Prairie will be deciding the championship for the sixth year in a row, the Ponies are hoping to provide some variety in future seasons.
"We were really looking at trying to do it this year," Almquist said. "We know Blake is losing a lot of seniors and we’re only losing three seniors so we’re going to have a really strong upperclassmen team next year."
Goals – St, Dana Almquist 7, Katie Casto 1, Maggie Corman 1 and Jennifer Jorgensen 1; Bl, Meghan Bauer 6, Anne Slusser 4, Jordan Chancellor 2, Lydia Sutton 2, Grace Nolan 1, Nicole Kozlak 1 and Caroline Maskusen 1.
Assists – St, Remi Larson 2; Bl, Chancellor 3, G. Nolan 1, Olivia Nolan 1 and Slusser 1.
Saves – St, Marie Bonine 5-1-6; Bl, Bailey Dunning 4-2-6.