Eau Claire Memorial girls soccer had no chance to get comfortable in its regional final game Saturday evening against Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln – even while leading by a pair of goals twice.
"It's a nice feeling, but you're never safe," Memorial coach Olivia Hanson said.
The Old Abes were certainly reminded of that. The Red Raiders ratcheted up the pressure after Memorial took a 2-0 lead heading into the final 40 minutes of regulation, and it paid off. Lincoln notched a pair of tallies, first in the 56th minute and again when time was running short in the 89th, to force a 20-minute overtime period.
Once again Memorial went up by two 14 minutes into the extra frame, yet the Red Raiders made sure it wouldn't be an easy ride to the finish line. They answered with one final tally in the 105th before Memorial hunkered down for a down-to-the-wire 4-3 victory to keep its season alive.
As the final whistle blew, the Abes could breathe a sigh of relief.
"It was super exhausting, it was nerve-wracking, but it was super exciting at the same time," Memorial senior midfielder Elli Hudacek said.
"It was a complete roller coaster," junior midfielder Greta Steines added.
Memorial opened the offense in the 23rd minute, scoring on a strong free kick from Mikkyla Worthing. The Abes added on and looked in control after going up 2-0 on an epic display of efficiency from Steines. She collected the ball right after the opening touch of the second half, then found a lane through the Red Raider zone to score just 11 seconds into the period.
"I have never scored a goal that fast," Steines said. "I just saw an opportunity. They had a light ball and I could just pick it off and I took it up the field. One of my teammates yelled, 'Rip it!' So I took it."
The Red Raiders played with a sense of desperation from there, given added life when Ashley Abbott got the team on the board with a shot to the top left corner in the 56th. They thwarted Memorial's efforts to run out the clock with a well-placed shot in the 89th. A deep attempt from Logan Vollert went just over the outstretched arm of Old Abe goalie Addison Fritz and in.
"Rapids came back hungry and ready to play, and they earned that 2-0 to tie it up," Hanson said. "We had a chat. We decided we are not ready to be done."
Memorial played like a team determined in overtime. It took just two minutes for the group to take the advantage back, with a Steines shot hitting the bar and coming right down for Hudacek to bury it. Twelve minutes later Steines showed off her possession skills again.
She weaved through a trio of defenders, found some space to the left side and fired a laser shot to the right that got past the hand of Rapids goalie Chelsea King.
"It's really fun," Hudacek said of watching Steines take over. "You've just kind of got to get out of the way and make sure you're not in front of her, but also be there in case she crosses it."
Rapids scored for the final time a minute after Steines' eventual game-winner, with Dakota Mitchell finishing right off a corner. But Memorial was able to run the clock the rest of the way, frequently kicking the ball out or deep into the Red Raider zone.
"It teaches you that you are never safe," Hanson said. "At the end of the day, if you want it badly enough and you work hard, results will happen. That's what happened today. We fought back."
Memorial will now get a second shot at Hudson, the top seed in the Old Abes' section of the bracket, in the sectional semifinals. The two Big Rivers foes played just once this year in just Memorial's second game of the season, a 3-1 victory for the Raiders.
"I think we've improved a lot since then and will be able to put up a good fight," Steines said.
Eau Claire Memorial 4, Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln 3 (OT)
Goals: 1, Memorial, Mikkyla Worthing (FK), 23rd minute; 2, Memorial, Greta Steines, 46th minute; 3, Lincoln, Ashley Abbott, 56th minute; 4, Lincoln, Logan Vollert, 89th minute; 5, Memorial, Elli Hudacek, 92nd minute; 6, Memorial, Steines (Jaiden Ivey), 104th minute; 7, Lincoln, Dakota Mitchell, 105th minute. Shots: Lincoln 21, Memorial 25. Saves: Chelsea King (Lincoln) 22, Addison Fritz (Memorial) 17.