As they walked off the field at Uihlein Soccer Park in Milwaukee the afternoon of April 5, members of the St. Catherine’s High School girls soccer team had a decision to make.
Were they going to lower their aspirations after a 6-0 loss to defending WIAA Division 2 champion Waukesha Catholic Memorial? Or were they going to focus on the possibilities for this season and get right back at it?
St. Catherine’s coach Ben Lake got his answer three days later, when the inspired Angels beat Brookfield Academy 1-0. And there’s been no looking back since.
Since that loss to Catholic Memorial, the only blemishes on St. Catherine’s record have been two ties. One of those was a shootout loss to Prairie in the championship of the Racine County Invitational May 3 after St. Catherine’s had rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie the match 2-2. The other was a 3-3 tie with Watertown April 26 at the Badger Invitational at Lake Geneva.
And now the Angels (21-1-2), the top-ranked Division 4 team in the Wisconsin Soccer Coaches Association state poll, are two victories away from the first state championship in the program’s history. They open play at noon Thursday at Uihlein Park with a WIAA Division 4 semifinal against New Holstein (17-3-3).
The winner of that game plays either Wisconsin Rapids Assumption (20-3) or Hartland Lake Country Lutheran (19-5) for the championship at 10 a.m. Saturday at Uihlein.
“We’re determined to come home with the gold ball,” said senior midfielder Sabrina Stulo, who has a team-high 20 goals. “We really want to win this one.”
They put themselves in that position by how they mentally handled that lopsided loss to Catholic Memorial April 5.
“The captains got together and we just talked about what needed to be done — what needed to be fixed and the attitudes going forward,” Stulo said. “Our work ethic had to be way harder in training.”
The issue was quickly solved. And the rest took care of itself with such a strong talent base.
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The Angels graduated just one player — midfielder Emily Murray — from last year’s 16-8-1 team. But she was replaced by Sydney Smith, who played softball as a sophomore last year.
Another tweak, Lake said, was freshman Rachel French replacing Anna Worman at outside left back, which allowed Worman to move to left wing. As Lake reflects on the Angels’ success this season, he sees that as a crucial move.
“We made that change and we’re just more dynamic offensively,” Lake said.
Otherwise, everything with this team was pretty much set. Stulo, Keri Berkowitz, Devon Polk and Jenna Zimmerman are the leaders as four-year starters. Sophomore Maddie Shea has been dynamic in goal. French and Zimmerman have joined Eleanor Escobar and Chandler Brewster to form a formidable back line.
Vanessa Ramage has provided scoring punch with Berkowitz, Stulo and Polk. And Ani Buchaklian, whom Lake says joins Smith on his list of the most unsung players, is a high-impact player off the bench.
“We have such a nice blend of kids who put a lot of time into our program,” said Lake, who coached the St. Catherine’s boys to the 2009 Division 3 championship. “We just have a unique blend of some young players who are very talented and players who have a lot of experience.”
And they’ve comprised a team that has been something to see on a regular basis since that loss to Memorial. Since then, St. Catherine’s has trailed in a game just three times — when it rallied from that 2-0 deficit to Prairie in the Racine County Invitational, when it rallied to beat Waukesha South at the Badger Invitational April 25 and when the Angels rallied from a 1-0 deficit to beat Prairie 2-1 in the sectional championship last Saturday to earn their first state berth since 2007.
It’s the Angels’ fourth trip to state — they were in Division 2 in 2001 and Division 3 in 2005 and ’07 — but they have just one victory to show for those appearances. Berkowitz feels the time has come to reverse that trend.
“We’ve been wanting to win state since we were freshmen, and this year, it felt so right,” Berkowitz said. “This is the first year we won conference since I got to St. Cat’s, so we’re really pumped to be actually going this year. We’re finally getting our chance to go.”