MINNEAPOLIS — After racking up 451 in more than three decades, victories are hardly a rare achievement for Phil Johnson and the Stillwater boys’ soccer team, but Tuesday’s 3-0 triumph over Bloomington Jefferson was not your run-of-the-mill victory.
The Ponies (16-2-4) bounced back from Monday’s disappointing semifinal loss to defeat the Jaguars for third place in the Class AA state tournament at the Metrodome — sending their hall of fame coach out the door with a gratifying victory in his final game.
Stillwater improved to 4-0 all-time in third-place games at the state tournament, a testament to Johnson’s message following what is always a deflating setback in the semifinals.
“We just turned it over to the players and said this is still the game you love to play, go out and enjoy playing with each other and it was the funnest game I’ve had in years,” Johnson said. “The boys just loved what we were doing and it showed in their great effort.”
The Ponies, who played without ailing midfielder Roma Devine, took control with two first-half goals by Jared Allen and expanded the lead with a second-half goal from Sam Rasmussen.
The game was back and forth throughout, but it was the Ponies who found the back of the net — unlike Monday when it was Eastview which made the most of its scoring chances.
“I’ve never been so pleased with the harmony and the unity that a group can finish the year and so this was a bit of a salve on the wound of not taking care of a long thrower the day before,” Johnson said. “We ended up on Monday with more shots, more opportunities against some strategic throwing skill that we didn’t handle, but that was all gone and wiped away. The boys picked up their medals with a lot of class and joy and grabbed the third-place trophy and this was our piece, our championship in our own little corner of the world. I have such gratitude towards them for their hard work and wonderful mental attitude.”
With the pressure of chasing a state championship gone, the Ponies brought more of a free-flowing attitude into Tuesday’s finale. Stillwater began the second half with an all-senior lineup with the exception of sophomore Matt Lagus in the back. The Ponies lined up Ryan Dopkins, Jacob Doneux and James Menzies in the back; Patrick Roth, Steig Peterson and Kevin Meads in the middle; Jeff Canterbury, Rasmussen and all-state goalkeeper Ben Wilhelm at the top; and Vince Anderson in goal to start the half.
Following that, Johnson went with a lineup of all underclassmen, until putting Rasmussen back in the game to score a goal for his 10th point of the season — earning a coveted Golden Boot Award in the process.
“We echoed some of the very best of our teams who have changed from sorrow to very positive and it was a celebration,” Johnson said. “We came with a mental attitude of possibilities and, of course it’s not a lot of pressure, but I’m telling you, it was a team celebration.”
Preserving the shutout was no easy task, either, but Vince Anderson took over in goal and made four stops.
“They were good and they put pressure on us,” said Johnson, whose final game came against Jaguars coach Danny Storlien, a long-time friend and coaching colleague. “This was back and forth, but no matter who we put in with our makeshift lineup, the boys measured up and they did their job. That thrills me as a coach, a total application of what we ask them.”
The fact that it was his final game as head coach didn’t feel much different the rest of the season, said Johnson, who suggested his retirement is more firm than that of, for example, Brett Favre or many prizefighters.
“I don’t need it — certainly the money isn’t there,” Johnson quipped. “I feel really at peace and I feel as I have felt all season. I’m glad for my decision and I don’t have to be doing this again next year. I think the only agony I really feel is in that three months I get to develop a relationship and build a team and work on them getting along and playing together and trying different things. I love that challenge and that team building part and are we sharing enough of ourselves to contribute to each other and help each other. I will miss the relationship part of coaching soccer, absolutely. It’s about relationships and I miss that about the classroom and I will miss that because these are dear human beings who know they have come a long ways together, but I don’t need to set out any more cones.
“I think we have some magic here at Stillwater on how to build teams and how to squeeze a lot out of the impossible. I think that’s been due to the history of my assistant coaches retaining so much of the message and continuing so much of the history. Teaching and coaching is relationships and then you raise the level of goals and beliefs and the potential that you can do this. I’m just the orchestra director and everybody does their part.”
Johnson finished his remarkable career — 32 seasons as head coach after four seasons as the B-squad coach — with a 451-156-64 record. Only Chuck Scanlon of Apple Valley and Guido Kauls of Minnehaha Academy have won more games among Minnesota soccer coaches. Apple Valley and St. Paul Academy, with 17 each, are also the only programs in the state to have qualified for more state tournaments than Stillwater at 16.
His teams have not suffered a losing season since 1983 and Johnson was named the Minnesota State Coach of the Year in 1996 and again after this past season. Johnson was also named the National High School League Coach of the Year in 1997. In addition to the 16 section titles and 17 conference championships, Johnson’s teams won back-to-back state titles in 1995 and 1996.
n Stillwater’s Matt Carlson, a former all-state goalkeeper for the Ponies, was named the Section 4AA Assistant Coach of the Year.
n Phil Johnson’s long-time assistant coach John Johnson, who was named the Minnesota Assistant Coach of the Year in 1997 and 2009, has also announced his intention to retire after the season.
n Stillwater seniors Roma Devine and Patrick Roth are slated to play in the Senior Classic on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at the Metrodome. The all-star game includes 22 of the top seniors from Class A facing 22 of their peers from Class AA. The girls’ all-star game will be held at 6 p.m., followed by the boys playing at 8 p.m.
Bloomington Jefferson 0 0 — 0
Stillwater 2 1 — 3
St — 4:45 — Jared Allen (Nathan Purdie)
St — 36:11 — Allen (Patrick Roth)
St — 28:18 — Sam Rasmussen (Purdie)
Shots on goal — BJ: 2-4—6; St: 4-5—9.
Corner kicks — BJ: 3-2—5; St: 3-1—4.
Fouls — BJ: 2-0—2; St: 1-1—2.
Goalie saves — BJ: Matthew Yost 2-0—2 and Sean Bannigan x-0—0; St: Ben Wilhelm 2-x—2 and Vince Anderson x-4—4.
Blaine 2, Champlin Park 1
Bloomington Jefferson 1, Minneapolis South 0 (SO)
Eastview 2, Moorhead 0
Stillwater 2, Owatonna 1
Blaine 3, Bloomington Jefferson 1
Eastview 3, Stillwater 1
Third place — Stillwater 3, Bloomington Jefferson 0
First place — Blaine (16-3-1) vs. Eastview (14-2-5) at the Metrodome on Thursday, 5:30 p.m.