State tournament trips becoming a Tiger tradition
They say good teams don't rebuild, they reload.
One of the best reloading efforts in New Richmond High School athletics history was done by the Tiger boys soccer team this fall and it has earned the Tigers a return trip to the WIAA Division 2 state tournament.
The Tigers earned the sectional championship on Saturday, Oct. 28 by soundly outplaying Wausau East in the sectional title game played at Merrill. The Tigers led 1-0 at halftime, then thoroughly dominated the action in the second half to win 3-0.
The Tigers will play in the first game of the 2017 WIAA State Championships when they face Whitefish Bay at 11 a.m. on Thursday. The Tigers aren't just drawing one of the best teams in the state on Thursday, they'll be facing one of the best teams in the nation. Whitefish Bay is ranked second in the nation in a recent USA Today poll. Whitefish Bay is the two-time WIAA Division 2 state champion and is 37-0-1 in its last 38 games. Whitefish Bay has only given up one goal in one game this season and has shut out 16 of hits 23 opponents.
This is the first year where the WIAA state tournament is being seeded and the Tigers can feel jilted by the seeding process. The Tigers and Whitefish Bay were the only number one seeds from their sectional to reach state in Division 2, but the Tigers were seeded behind a number two seed (Oregon) and a number three seed (Waukesha West). Tiger coach Darian Blattner tried to be diplomatic about the draw.
"You've got to go through Whitefish Bay if you're going to win it all anyway," Blattner said. He said he hopes the seeding process will be reviewed after the season. "I hope there will be conversations statewide so out-state teams have a say."
The Tigers were outstanding in Saturday's game. Wausau East gave its best charge early in the game. Once the Tigers weathered that charge, they began to control more and more of the action. The Tigers scored the game's first goal at the 24:55 mark. Nick Cheslock took a free kick from just inside the midfield line. The Wausau East keeper blocked the initial shot and it bounced out toward the top of the box. New Richmond senior Mason Marek was following the play and he one-timed a shot that was unstoppable.
The score remained 1-0 at halftime. During halftime it began to snow in Merrill. The Tigers had played with the wind in their face in the first half. With the wind at their back in the second half, the Tigers were able to send balls over the top to give sophomore standout AJ Johnson multiple scoring chances. He cashed in on two of them.
Johnson scored at 69:14 from short-range after he tracked down a ball near the right corner of the net. Johnson struck again at the 72:57 mark. New Richmond's Kyler Bengtson had nearly scored in front of the net. The ball was knocked backward a few feet, where Johnson was waiting to drive the ball home.
One of the keys to the Tigers' play Saturday, especially in the second half, was the play of the team's midfielders. Their aggressive play prevented Wausau East from transitioning to offense, turning the ball back to the offensive end. That started with Tyler Blattner and Philip Nebich in the middle of the field, and strong play from outside mids like Bengtson and Herbie Struss.
Amery also qualified for the state tournament, in Division 3. This makes the Middle Border Conference one of two conferences in the state to put two teams into the state tournament field. New Richmond takes an 18-7-1 record to state, but the Tigers are 17-3-1 in their last 21 games.
Last Thursday, the Tigers advanced to the sectional finals with a 6-2 win over Holmen. Blattner opened the scoring 12 minutes into Thursday's game. Senior Andy Boerjan followed with a pretty goal. He had his back to the goal, and in one motion he spun and drove the ball into the net. Jose Rapalo scored next, giving the Tigers a 3-0 lead. Holmen then scored to make the lead 3-1 heading into halftime.
If there was any question who would win, Johnson answered them by scoring 90 seconds into the second half to increase the lead to 4-1. Marek and Johnson would finish the Tigers' scoring. With the substantial lead, the coaches gave the younger players game time, with some sophomores receiving as much as 20 minutes of game time in a sectional contest.