Even the blemishes for Rice Lake boys soccer are impressive heading into next week’s playoffs.
The Warriors dropped their contest at Eau Claire Memorial on Thursday, 5-2, pushing the team’s loss total to four heading into regionals. But all four of those defeats came against the top two teams in the Big Rivers, state-ranked Division 1 programs Memorial and Hudson. Memorial sealed the Big Rivers title Thursday.
As a D3 program, it’s hard to complain about those results. That’s why the Warriors are ranked themselves, No. 9 in the latest state poll, and have the top seed in their upcoming regional.
“If you start the season and say you’re only going to have those losses for the season, you’ll take it,” Rice Lake coach Shawn Gilbert said.
Playing up in size teaches the Warriors lessons that can benefit them come playoff time, especially when you consider many of their opponents haven’t been tested in the same way. Teams like Memorial travel long distances to battle stiffer competition, while Rice Lake has those tune-ups built into its schedule. It’s a big reason the Warriors have made it to sectionals six years in a row.
“These are the best teams we’ll see all year, even probably better than the teams if we make it down to Milwaukee (for the state tournament),” Gilbert said. “Our boys are battle-tested before the playoffs even start.”
Rice Lake’s back line and goalie Zach Holmstrom have been strong all year, notching nine shutouts. Four of those came against larger Big Rivers schools, Eau Claire North, Menomonie and Chippewa Falls. Offensively, Parker Bowman has put up 17 goals and Jake Engebritson 44 points.
The Warriors’ playoff journey begins next Thursday when they host the winner of Spooner/Shell Lake and Altoona/Fall Creek. The program is looking to make its first trip to the state tournament since 2016.
“Their strong schedule makes them really state-ready, playoff-ready,” Memorial coach David Kite said. “They’re always solid. They’ll work for 90 minutes. You can’t relax for a minute against Rice.”
For the Old Abes, the victory Thursday clinched an undefeated conference slate and an outright Big Rivers title. Memorial was in the driver’s seat after their victory against Hudson last Thursday, just needing to close out the schedule with wins against Eau Claire North, Menomonie and the Warriors to claim the title. Their only result outside the win column in BRC play was a 1-1 draw with Hudson on Sept. 17.
“It’s exciting,” Abe defenseman and team captain Logan Junker said. “We worked a lot over the winter and offseason and I think it was well deserved.”
Luke Rosenberger was the fire-starter on Thursday, earning a natural hat trick in a ten minute span in the early stages of the second half. Rice Lake got on the board first on a header from Engebritson off the corner in the 15th minute, but the Abes responded with five straight. Garrett Woodford opened the Abe scoring in the 17th minute and Rosenberger put the game away with two goals in the 51st and a final tally in the 59th.
Mason Sherman closed out the scoring outburst in the 76th, while Rice Lake got a final tally in the 83rd thanks to Edgar Sanchez.
Memorial enters the playoffs with only one loss all season, a 2-0 defeat against Oregon on Sept. 28. The Abes have made trips to Green Bay, the Twin Cities, Madison and Milwaukee to prepare themselves for a playoff run, which kicks off on Tuesday against intracity rival North.
“Now it’s show up and execute,” Kite said.
Eau Claire Memorial 5, Rice Lake 2
Rice Lake 1 1 — 2
ECM 1 4 — 5
Goals: 1, RL, Jake Engebritson (Kolbjorn Ahlberg), 14th minute; 2, ECM, Garrett Woodford (Jacob Peloquin), 15th minute; 3, ECM, Luke Rosenberger (Will Hartman), 51st minute; 4, ECM, Luke Rosenberger (Ryder Woodworth), 51st minute; 5, ECM, Rosenberger (Peloquin), 59th minute; 6, Mason Sherman (Evan Smith), 76th minute; 7, RL, Edgar Sanchez (Parker Bowman), 83rd minute. Shots: Rice Lake 7, Eau Claire Memorial 19. Saves: Zach Holmstrom (RL) 5, Scott Knowlton (ECM) 3. Records: Rice Lake 13-4-1, 7-4-1; Eau Claire Memorial 15-1-3, 11-0-1.