Rhinelander’s Rachel Steffen celebrates with teammate Gwyn Lowry after scoring a goal during the second half of a WIAA Division 2 regional final girls’ soccer game against Merrill at the RHS soccer fields Saturday, May 31. The goal gave Rhinelander a 2-0 lead. The Hodags defeated the Bluejays, 4-0. (Photos by Jeremy Mayo/River News)
Brooke Mork takes the WIAA Division 2 regional championship plaque on a victory lap following a game against Merrill Saturday, June 1 at the RHS soccer fields.
6/4/2019 7:33:00 AM Hodags get by Merrill 4-0 in regional soccer finals
Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. The Rhinelander High School girls' soccer team was both lucky and good in the second half Saturday against Merrill and is in the sectional round of the WIAA tournament again as a result.
Rachel Steffen one-hopped a shot from nearly 50 yards into the goal in the 51st minute, helping to propel the Hodags to a 4-0 victory over the Bluejays at the RHS soccer fields in a Division 2 regional final.
Despite outshooting the Bluejays 34-6 in the match, Rhinelander didn't get on the board until the 31st minute and needed Steffen's jolt in the 51st to provide some needed insurance. Two more goals in the final 13 minutes sealed the victory and gave the Hodags a sectional semifinal date against Marshfield Thursday in Rhinelander.
"It wasn't easy in the beginning and we knew it wasn't going to be easy," coach Richard Kotula said. "Merrill did a real nice job compacting us. We've seen how they played against Hortonville and that's the game they brought to us as well. The compacted defense was giving us a hard time but we figured it out."
At halftime, Kotula said he implored his outside defenders, including Steffen, to be more aggressive. Shooting from near the half line would qualify.
With a strong northerly breeze at her back, Steffen fired a deep shot into the penalty area. It bounded near the top of the six-yard box, took a high hop over keeper Kaylee Bowe and fell just underneath the crossbar.
"You could just see the excitement scoring such a nice goal," Kotula said. "I think the wind helped it. The wind kind of picked up off and on in the second half. It was almost the 12th man for us. It helped us for sure."
The Hodags didn't have the same fortune in the first half as attacker and first-team All-Great Northern Conference selection Izzy Haverkampf rang a shot off the left goal post in the 10th minute. Despite generating plenty of shots, it was the Hodags' best scoring chance until the 31st minute when Ella Schiek sent a cross into the box. Gwyn Lowry won the fight for the loose ball roughly eight yards from goal and passed a low shot into the net to give Rhinelander a one-goal advantage it would carry until halftime.
Though the goals weren't falling early in the match, Kotula said the Hodags dominated possession and, in turn, the game.
"We did a nice job passing - passing back to (goalkeeper) Kahlie (Arneson), passing back to our defensive mids - and trying to open space for our players to attack," he said. "The opportunity the girls had today, connecting multiple passes in a row, was one of the best (games) we've had all year ... It finally happened late in the first half and we controlled the tempo of the game."
Eleanor Steffen, Rachel's younger sister, scored her first varsity goal in the 78th minute, getting on the back post for a rebound off a Haverkampf shot. Haverkampf added one more tally in the 84th minute.
Arneson was not called on often in the match, recording only two saves in the shutout. Merrill's most dangerous chance came moments before Rhinelander's third goal when Journey Smith raced through the middle on the breakaway, but put a hurried shot from 15 yards directly at Arneson for a routine save.
"The second half, I noticed they were substituting some of their faster player up front because they wanted to create some opportunities," Kotula said. "They had a couple options, but Kahlie was on top of it. She was reading some of those longer balls and our defense adjusted to it."
Up next is a rematch against Marshfield at the RHS soccer fields. The Hodags defeated the Tigers 2-0 in Rhinelander back on May 4. Marshfield, the No. 2 seed in the half sectional, advanced with a 3-0 win over Wausau East Saturday.
Kickoff is slated for 5 p.m. at the RHS soccer fields.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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