ST. CLOUD — Advancing to the state is certainly an achievement, but the real treat is advancing to the final four and playing at the Metrodome, which the Stillwater boys’ soccer team will do after knocking off Owatonna in Thursday’s Class AA state quarterfinals at St. Cloud State University’s Husky Stadium.
The second-seeded Ponies were unfazed by the cold conditions and played crisply throughout their 2-1 victory. Stillwater advances to face third-seeded Eastview in the state semifinals on Monday at 6 p.m.
Blaine knocked off top-seeded Champlin Park in another quarterfinal game on Thursday and will face Bloomington Jefferson — which topped Minneapolis South 8-7 in a shootout — in the early semifinal on Monday.
“Even though I know (the state tournament) is three games, sometimes guys don’t say let’s get to the state tournament, it’s let’s get to the Dome,” said Ponies coach Phil Johnson, who acknowledges the quarterfinal games almost feel like an extension of the section finals because they’re played outdoors — often under miserable conditions. “We had a lot of people and a student body bus and we want to thank them for their follower-ship, that was great.”
Thanks to Stillwater’s bustling play against the first-time state qualifier Huskies (13-4-2), they won’t need the gloves and warm-weather gear for the final two games next week.
“We lifted each other up with this team win,” Johnson said. “We now go to the Dome.”
The Ponies started quickly to set the tone, but didn’t find the back of the net until Matt Lagus scored on a pass in from Sam Rasmussen. The sequence started with a corner kick by Nathan Purdie that was rejected by the Owatonna defense, but Rasmussen served it back in to the far post where Lagus was waiting for the header over goalkeeper Carter McCauley.
“(Assistant coach) Matt Carlson had just told Sammy if you get a ball just lift it back in there and Matt Lagus, who had pulled himself back so he wasn’t offsides, slipped in behind and headed it in.”
It’s no secret that this is the final season for Johnson as head coach, but after watching the work of midfielders Nathan Purdie and Roma Devine again on Thursday, the coach hinted at what he might like to do after hanging up the clipboard.
“We bring up the center backs for our free kicks and they have a mission and assignment and they’re licking their chops because our free kick serves by Nathan and Roma (Devine) are very precise,” Johnson said. “I wish I could still play and get on the post and slide in there — an old man like me could get that with the perfection that they have — it’s tasty.”
Stillwater, which outshot the Huskies 10-3, increased its lead to 2-0 in the 12th minute of the second half as Rasmussen drilled a one-timer into the upper corner of the net from about 10 yards out. The shot was set up by Patrick Roth, who made a run on the left flank and served the ball back in front of the goal for Rasmussen, who knew what to do with it and struck quickly.
“Roma was just magical in the midfield and Nathan is so crafty and strong,” Johnson said. “With Pat, it’s just constant work and stretching their defense. Matt and Sammy both had to work hard to position themselves to score and they played outstanding games.”
Owatonna added a goal with 20 seconds remaining after the Ponies failed to clear a ball and Jared Santibanez looped a ball from long range that cleared goalkeeper Ben Wilhelm to spoil the shutout — not that anyone was complaining.
“To me, this has all been about mental toughness,” Johnson said. “It’s not soccer, we’ve done our physical preparation, it’s mental sharpness and it’s mind and heart. It’s are you conjoined together as a group in your mind to celebrate each other’s success and is your heart willing to do the work — that’s been my theme this last week and a half.”
In addition to a healthy advantage in shots on goal, the Ponies also took eight corner kicks, compared to just one for Owatonna.
Devine was stopped by a Huskies defender on the doorstep during Stillwater’s flurry of activity early in the game.
“Our first 15 minutes were just beautiful, we just didn’t put it in the net,” Johnson said. “Everyone was very much involved with the precision of the work that was done, driving the ball into the box and crossing it. Roma tattooed a ball from the top of the box that the keeper came out and was out of position and it hit one of their defenders right in the chest. Their keeper also made some really outstanding saves.”
Everyone played and the Ponies remained vigilant throughout, the coach suggested.
“Kevin (Meads) and his defense made few mistakes and kept team shape and started many attacks with their ball winning and passing,” Johnson said. “Tashi (Tsering had great positioning and hard work and connecting with the teammates with his passing. Jared (Allen) was a lunch pail worker, he got scraped and got dangerous in his attacking dribbles. All the rest got in the game and did a good job with their opportunity.”
Stillwater 1 1 — 2
Owatonna 0 1 — 1
St — 35:26 — Matt Lagus (Sam Rasmussen)
St — 12:24 — Rasmussen (Patrick Roth)
Ow — 39:40 — Jared Santibanez (NA)
Shots on goal — St: 10; Ow: 3.
Corner kicks — St: 8; Ow: 1.
Fouls — St: 4; Ow: 8.
Goalie saves — St: Ben Wilhelm 2; Ow: Carter McCauley 8.
Blaine 2, Champlin Park 1
Bloomington Jefferson 1, Minneapolis South 0 (won shootout 8-7)
Eastview 2, Moorhead 0
Stillwater 2, Owatonna 1
At the Metordome
Blaine (15-3-1) vs. Bloomington Jefferson (16-3-1), 4 p.m.
Stillwater (15-1-4) vs. Eastview (13-2-5), 6 p.m.
Third place — At the Metrodome on Tuesday, 4 p.m.
First place — At the Metrodome on Thursday, 5:30 p.m.