More than the result itself, Jerry Realing felt the most emotion when he saw the tears of pride swelling among his Kelly Walsh Trojans following their historic win last weekend. Across the campus of Jackson Hole High School, the Rock Springs girls were basking in their own watershed victory and what they accomplished over the previous 80 game minutes.
The West Conference’s two best teams became the first 4A teams from that half of the state to advance out of the quarterfinals since 2009. Each were also the first tournament wins for both programs.
Since the split into two classifications in 2008, only Natrona County (2008-09) had advanced into the semifinals. More than a half-dozen teams and countless senior classes never fulfilled the goal of winning a state tournament match in that time. This year, however, two teams quenched the drought.
“It’s an amazing feeling, really,” Rock Springs senior Liliana Hernandez said. “We wanted this for a long time and we came out strong and we got it.”
That quick start helped the Tigers exorcise their tournament demons in a 4-0 win over Cheyenne East. A seventh-minute goal from Olivia Politi put them ahead, a Karli Nelson goal nearly half-an-hour later added breathing room and two goals from standout junior Alyssa Bedard put the match out of reach for the 10-time state champions.
Rock Springs head coach Stephen Pyer shouted out one of his midfielders after the match, sophomore Lauren Profaizer. He tweaked the Tigers’ lineup in the regional championship against Kelly Walsh that moved Profaizer to center defensive midfielder. While playing a floating defender and in support of the midfield the sophomore added another layer for opponents to try and get through.
“She’s won so many balls out there,” Pyer said. “She shut down Sydney Miller that first half, irritated her, then shut down Faith Burdett in the second half.”
Miller, the University of Wyoming signee, couldn’t move into space and East’s offense rarely managed a shot on net. Like the Tigers had done so many times this season, they charged through East and never wavered from their aggressor mentality. Hernandez admitted there may have been a few nerves, even after the breathing exercise Pyer instructed minutes before kickoff, but the early energy and Politi’s goal helped settle into a comfort zone. Bedard agreed, saying that for the final hour of the match the Tigers were able to settle in and play to possession, exhausting the East defense.
The outcome was, essentially, a forgone conclusion in the final minutes when the Tigers were finally able to celebrate. Their opening-season goal of winning the state championship was still two victories away but they’d finally notched the biggest win in program history.
“It’s been three years coming,” Bedard said. “We’ve been able to make it the past couple of years, we’ve just made some tough mistakes in the past two years. So getting over that hump just feels great.”
Added Hernandez: “Being past the first round for the first time in history, playing with these girls, it’s just amazing.”
That win served as validation for the Tigers’ pedigree up to that point. Before losing to eventual state champion Thunder Basin on penalty kicks in semifinals the Tigers were undefeated. In fact, the Tigers didn’t lose in overtime or regulation all season and only conceded six goals from opener to third-place victory. The only team to score on Rock Springs before the state tournament was Kelly Walsh, the other team to accomplish history last weekend. The Trojans scored four of the six allowed goals all year, one in each hard-fought match.
“It goes to show that our wins against Kelly Walsh, they’re not easy,” Pyer said. “We had to earn those wins and, technically, we’re both the top four teams in the state.”
Kelly Walsh’s historic quarterfinal differed slightly from Rock Springs’ dominant effort against East. An early misplay from the Trojan defense saw Laramie go ahead on a Jayla Wulff goal. Wulff was offsides but because the ball was intentionally played back by the defense, right where the junior Lady Plainsmen was waiting, the goal counted.
That came in the 2nd minute. Instead of unraveling the Trojans stayed level-headed and determined to draw that goal back over the remaining 78 minutes.
“The only one affected by that was me,” Kelly Walsh head coach Jerry Realing said. “The team said you go ahead and talk to the referees and we’re going to keep playing. And that’s exactly what you want out of a team, is to keep playing in the moment. Perfect.”
Kelly Walsh dominated the run of play and quality chances after that early goal. Realing knew it was just a matter of time until the Trojans equalized, the team just needed to stay patient. Just over a half-hour after trailing, the Trojans drew level on a goal from senior Noelle Vigneri. Not only did that equalize on the scoreboard but it gave the Trojans tangible evidence for their work rate in this quarterfinal. That goal also gave the Trojans confidence going into the second half, where they consistently played their best all year.
During that break Realing had pulled freshman Rachel Evenson from the lineup. She played early in the match but she appeared initially overwhelmed by the enormity of the match. The coaches took her aside on the bench and laid out the situation.
“This is a different game than what we’re used to,” Realing explained. “We told her about the history of what Kelly Walsh has been through and she responded. I think everybody did.”
Evenson struck the Trojans’ go-ahead in the 64th minute, taking in all 360 degrees around as her teammates jubilantly ran towards her. After all of the years of waiting and the seniors who were determined to not be just another team to come away short, a freshman scored the biggest goal.
Underclassmen were one of the Trojans’ more reliable components during the season. Not only Evenson, but also sophomores Melicia McIntyre, Barrett Lloyd, Paige Hill and Alyssa DePoorter. Freshman defender Audrey Mosler also provided quality minutes and stops during the season. The vaunted senior captains of Vigneri, Nicole Klungness and Maddi Leclair recognized those contributions with appreciation.
“They don’t really know what it’s like so them coming in and playing their hardest is great,” Vigneri said. “They know how much we wanted it and that’s what they were playing for. We talked about it a lot throughout the season, we were just playing for each other.”
Vigneri was in a similar position as Evenson just a few years ago. She was new to varsity soccer, fighting for minutes on the field, playing in the state tournament and unaware of all the historic factors at play. As a senior, not only did Vigneri score the tying goal just before half but she added a second for good measure in the 79th minute. That final goal came on a picturesque ball from confidant Klungness, the leading scorer in program history.
Having performed as a standout for over three full seasons, Klungness finally surpassed the Kelly Walsh goal-scoring record midway through her senior season. She went on to score more, as well as experience frustrations of not tallying more in the regional tournament. Deservedly, she etched her name even further into the school’s history book with a goal in the 77th minute of the team’s first 4A state tournament win.
Those goals all came to overcompensate for that rare mistake by Leclar that led to Laramie’s goal. The senior co-captain looked her teammates afterwards and shook off the play. Laramie rarely got past her for the remaining 78 minutes of the match.
“We’ve been so close so many times,” Vigneri said. “We have so many second-place medals that we could throw up. I don’t know. Just pushing through and getting through the first round with Nicole and Maddi, it was a great breakthrough.”
Realing noted the accomplishment in those girls after the match.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “I’m here to see the pride and the work in their faces. I thought it was going to be an emotional thing but the emotion comes from seeing the pride in your seniors. The game was great but the relationships that you build over four years, to see that kind of culminate in a goal that they’ve had forever, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Kelly Walsh and Rock Springs both moved into the semifinals but their title aspirations stopped there. Rock Springs had its heart broken by Thunder Basin in penalty kicks, Kelly Walsh couldn’t stop Cheyenne Central’s stellar midfield. That resulted in the Trojans and Tigers meeting for the fourth time, ending their seasons against each other in the third-place match.
The Tigers once again beat Kelly Walsh thanks to two goals from Bedard, one coming in the first 5 minutes. The two used each other as measuring sticks and improvement throughout the season, knowing that they were each other’s best chance at moving up to the next rung during the conference season. That sort of dependency developed friendships, both in coaching and on the field. Fittingly enough, they were able to celebrate the same accomplishment on the same day, a full decade after their peers last did the same.
“Every single year we get our hopes up so high,” Vigneri said. “It’s cool that us and Rock Springs did it. We’ve been wanting it for so long, I know those girls have too. So it was cool that we could both do that.”