The Rhinelander High School girls' soccer team had a new coach in 2019, but the Hodags' run of nearly a decade of strong play continued.
Long-time assistant Richard Kotula took the reins from the retired Dan Millot and guided Rhinelander to an 11-5-0 mark this spring that included a runner-up finish in the Great Northern Conference, a No. 1 seed for the Division 2 regional tournament and the team's sixth regional title in seven years.
"I thought it was a great season and we accomplished a lot of good things," Kotula said last week during the team's year-end banquet.
Here are five things to know about the season.
It was not exactly the easiest transition for Kotula, who was announced in late December as Millot's replacement on the girls' side.
The first week of practice coincided with Rhinelander's spring break, limiting the number of players in attendance. Then there was Mother Nature, which once again kept the Hodags indoors for a prolonged period of time early in the spring.
Rhinelander was able to head south to play a pair of games the first weekend of April, a 3-0 loss to Hartford Union and a 6-0 loss at Pewaukee, but then did not get onto the field again until April 23 when it took on Northland Pines. In between, there was plenty of logistical juggling and very little practice time outdoors.
"We were not on the field for a long time," Kotula said. "I really applaud the players and parents who bring kids to different gyms, different times. It was just a mess and I know it was a headache for everyone."
Once conference play began, the same roadblock that kept Rhinelander from a seventh GNC title last season stood in the Hodags' way again.
Ashland beat Rhinelander 2-0 when the teams played up in Ashland on May 7. With a new conference format, Rhinelander was assured another crack at the Oredockers during second-round play, but Ashland won the rematch in Rhinelander 1-0 May 16.
An Abby Koehler penalty kick in the 46th minute proved to be the difference in the rematch, but Ashland dominated possession and the stat sheet in the rematch. The Oredockers outshot the Hodags 16-7 overall in the match. Rhinelander recorded only one shot on goal in a victory that clinched a second straight conference title for the Oredockers.
"Some of the things we were doing in this game, we were just too anxious to get up front instead of playing our own game, building a good build up," Kotula said afterward. "That's something we just discussed now as a team, making sure that something like that, when we continue in postseason. That we actually play the game we're accustomed to."
The good news for Rhinelander was that Ashland was in Division 3. The Hodags, back up in Division 2 this year, were able to use a runner-up finish in the GNC, coupled with a 2-0 win over Marshfield May 4 to earn the top seed in the seven-team regional ahead of the Tigers.
Rhinelander drew a first round bye and then won the regional title with a 4-0 win over Merrill to set up a rematch against Marshfield with a trip to the sectional finals on the line.
Unfortunately for the Hodags, the second time against Marshfield did not go as well as the first.
Tigers' leading scorer Nina Hashimoto, who was held off the scoresheet in the first meeting, recorded a hat trick and Hodag striker Izzy Haverkampf missed a potential momentum-turning penalty kick near halftime. Marshfield won the match 4-0 and eventually made its way to the state tournament.
"The Marshfield game, that last game, unfortunately didn't go the way we wanted it to go," Kotula said. "Nina, an amazing player from Marshfield. She broke all the Marshfield records for goal scoring. It was a difficult game. But, Marshfield also went on to state, so they deserved it. They were the better team that day."
The Hodags finished the season with nine all-Great Northern Conference selections, including four first-team honorees.
It started in goal for the Hodags where sophomore keeper Kahlie Arneson earned first-team honors. She was 10-5 overall (7-2 in the GNC) with a 1.17 goals against average and a .822 save percentage.
She was a unanimous first-team selection along with Haverkampf, who stepped into the role of leading scorer this year following the graduation of Alayna Franson and Anna Sturzl. Haverkampf recorded a team-best 14 goals and scored 33 points overall.
Junior Kenedy Van Zile (7 goals, 4 assists) was the team's second-leading scorer and also received first-team recognition from the GNC coaches. Senior defender Emma Hjelle rounded out Rhinelander's first-team quartet.
Brooke Mork, Payton Van Zile, Jaden Olski, Gwyn Lowry and Ella Schiek were Rhinelander's other all-conference honorees.
Rhinelander will once again have some rebuilding to so in the back, graduating Hjelle, Mork and Payton Van Zile from the defensive unit.
In the midfield, Olski's graduation will lead the team without its third leading scorer on the season (5 goals, 6 assists).
Arneson will be set to return for her junior year and with Haverkampf, Kenedy Van Zile, Ella Schiek (6 goals, 2 assists) and Lowry (5 goals, 3 assists), the team will return four of its top five scorers from this season.
At the banquet, Kotula said the expectations will remain the same.
"We knew Ashland was the team to beat. For those coming back next year, that's what we need to strive for," he said. "We need to be the best of the conference. That's the goal. The goal is to be better."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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