For the vast majority of the spring season the Rock Springs girls soccer team was the most dominant across Wyoming. The Tigers didn’t allow a goal until nearly a month into the season (10th match) and outscored opponents 93-3 throughout the regular season.
That historic regular season moved further into the record books when they dispatched Cheyenne East 3-0 in the quarterfinals, scoring the first quarterfinal win for a West Conference team sine 2009. (Kelly Walsh also won its quarterfinal this year.) They also came within penalty kicks of beating the eventual state champions.
This year’s Rock Springs team was dramatically better than last season, which still won a regional championship. There’s a few tangible reasons why, but one of them stands out to opposing coaches and to the Tigers’ own head honcho.
“You hear about skipping lines, don’t skip lines,” Rock Springs head coach Stephen Pyer said. “You go from defense to a striker, it’s hard. Most teams sit four back. You have to be an elite striker to win a ball in the air, win the next ball and then go for goal.
“Having Liliana (Hernandez) in the middle, it relieves pressure on defense, it relieves pressure on the wings, it helps the strikers so that any moment in time they feel comfortable playing the ball to her.”
Hernandez didn’t play last season due to injury. She maintained a knee brace throughout most of this campaign but played unencumbered by any pain or complications. She tallied eight assists and impacted at least a couple dozen more goals, not including the four she chipped in herself.
Her holding pattern against Cheyenne East alone helped other Tigers play in different positions and keep East’s hampered offense from getting on the board.
“They threw the ball over at least a dozen times in the first half,” Pyer said. “That’s the first place they look is ‘Where’s Lili? Where’s (Alyssa) Bedard in the midfield?’
“And then it’s the flow. You make one wrong step and she’s off to the races and she’s looking for the killer, the through pass that’s going to end it.”
And if there’s one Tiger who benefited the most from the return of the senior winger it’s Bedard. The junior scored a 4A-high 33 goals last season and played with even more freedom as a roaming midfielder this year. It led to fewer goals (26), but it also led to a far more successful season.
“She was the missing key last year,” Pyer said, “like everyone says.”
Bedard could feel the difference and the freedom, having Hernandez back on the field with her.
“It makes all the difference in the world having her in the middle,” Bedard said. “It’s helped so much this year and that’s definitely something that we were missing last year. Having that and everyone coming together, putting the work in this season, that’s what feels best: putting all that work in and having it pay off.”
Following that convincing win in the quarterfinals against East, the Tigers celebrated with their fans and basked in the glow of the program’s first playoff win in program history. Hernandez stood among them, happy to share that moment with her teammates.
“It feels great since I wasn’t able to play last year,” she said. “Being able to play with this team, I love it. I love playing with these girls and getting through the first round for the first time in history, it feels great.”
Gillette College head coach Nate Ulness recognized her skills and abilities enough to offer her a scholarship.
Bedard and Hernandez stood together before the team broke their extended huddle of congratulations and decided what their plan was for the night after an unprecedented quarterfinal win. They all agreed on watching that night’s United States Women’s National Team game.
Then they were asked about how they’d tackle the following semifinal, a meeting with eventual champion Thunder Basin. Bedard started by saying “Just keep playing —” before Hernandez joined in. And then, in complete unison, they finished the sentence together with “our game.”