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Watching from the utility shed sitting besides both fields at Kelly Walsh’s Tom Staffileno Activities Complex, Trojan girls soccer coach Jerry Realing smiled at his team captains’ ability to start practice without him.

Realing simply walked past senior forward Nicole Klungness and told her to “get them going.” A minute later, the Trojans started that day’s practice. Realing’s smile turned to a chuckle thinking about how things have unfolded with this current group of seniors.

Klungness didn’t know if she wanted to play soccer when she arrived at Kelly Walsh. Now, at the culmination of her senior season, she’s the program’s leading scorer. And through that multi-year journey she’s leaned on coaches and teammates alike to make it all possible.

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” she smiled, “if I could say that.”

***

Klungness’s love for the game began when she started kicking the soccer ball around as a child. She estimated it started when she was as young as 3 or 4. Not long after, she started playing much more actively for Casper Blades. That allowed her a consistent outlet, sometimes competitive, to play soccer with her friends.

It was through Blades that her now-coach first noticed her talents. Realing was a Blades coach at the time, helping coach his daughter through the youth soccer ranks. As the years passed by, Klungness’ abilities became more of an outlier and far more difficult to deny.

“I knew the kind of skill that she was going to bring to the next level,” Realing said.

By the time Klungness finished middle school she’d developed into a promising talent. But it wasn’t a forgone conclusion that she’d be a Day One starter for Realing and Kelly Walsh.

If there’s one sport that Klungness grew to love more than soccer it was golf. She played golf all four years at Kelly Walsh, including on the Trojans’ three-time state championship team. After high school she’ll attend Black Hills State on a golf scholarship. She hadn’t even won a state title or signed her letter of intent by the end of her freshman year when she debated not playing soccer. In fact, she probably wouldn’t have if not for a meeting with Realing.

Before the spring season Realing called Klungness in for a meeting in his classroom.

“I don’t want her to come to turf wars with us,” Realing remembered telling her. “I knew that we had to get her to fall back in love with the game. So I told her to take some time away from the game and we’ll revisit it in the spring.”

There was no mention of coming to practice. There was no talk about kicking the ball around with the team. There certainly wasn’t any mention of playing through fatigue. It was simply about Klungness realizing how much she’d miss the game.

“And I fell in love with it,” Klungness said. “I’m so glad that he sat me down and had that talk because none of this would have ever happened.”

That isn’t to say that her impact came upon arrival. She admitted that there was a definite learning curve. She needed to get acclimated to the intensity and speed at which the Trojans played, which even then was higher than most contemporaries in the Class 4A West Conference.

Klungness broke out of her shell and started fulfilling her potential. In a match against Riverton that season she scored four goals as part of a runaway victory. Since then, there’s been no turning back.

“That was just kind of the breaking point,” Klungness said. “After that I thought, ‘OK, I can play with these girls.’ Because it was intimidating coming in as a freshman playing high school soccer.”

***

Klungness spent the following two years playing with longtime friends that became teammates, assisting and scoring goals. Each year brought more success, which raised the bar for the program. Her junior season ended in the state tournament yet again.

Last season proved to be her turning point. Not only did she materialize into a bonafide threat to score from outside the box, she noticed the school record for goals as a distinct possibility. She didn’t expect to be in that position when she started playing but, like her career has proven, with enough hard work and passion anyone can achieve great things.

“I didn’t really have any expectations coming in,” she explained. “I was just coming in to have fun with my friends who I played with growing up. It wasn’t late in that junior year that I saw there was a record and that I wanted to break. Then things got moving.”

That left one final year to accomplish that goal. A final season to achieve a dream, just three full seasons removed from the year that almost never was.

“She came out and played with us and the rest is, literally, sports history for us,” Realing said. “With the number of goals and assists that she’s had.

“With her and Noelle (Vigneri), I knew what those girls were bringing to the team. I knew it was going to be a special group.”

Unlike her senior year in golf, her final soccer season brought less urgency. Klungness didn’t want to instill more pressure on herself or her teammates, she simply wanted to enjoy the final times before they end. And with every early season match, most of them wins, she committed to memory.

Then came a mid-season tilt against Jackson, with Klungness on the verge of history. Near the mid-point of the match she charged toward goal, received a through pass from long-time friend Vigneri, and sent a rocket into the back of the net. By the time she turned to hug Vigneri and the tears started to flow she had set a new school record with 59 career goals.

“To have all my family and friends there to watch it was just – I remember crying immediately when I saw the ball go into the net,” she said. “I was just so excited and happy.”

***

Realing noted that goal as a transcendent moment for the program. Of course, he also knows Klungness well enough to imagine that every goal since then has also come with a purpose.

“She doesn’t want to set that,” he explained, “she wants to push that so far out there that the next person that comes along, and she wants that next person to come along, that they’re going to have to be that much better.

“That’s what she’s trying to do. She’s pushing our program further and further along. That’s the beauty of the competition she has. She could also tell you everyone who has given her an assist along the way.”

Through another swath of goals and another regional tournament that ended in yet another could-go-either-way match with undefeated Rock Springs, the Trojans are back in the state soccer tournament. It’s the final season, the final opportunity for this talented senior class to get over the quarterfinal hump that no West Conference team has been able to in a decade. That’s been the goal every year and it certainly hasn’t changed because of the drought’s length.

Klungness was in the midst of her Casper Blades days when that drought began and since then she’s developed into an undisputed leader on the team. With all her contributions noted, she’s also bought into something bigger than herself. It’s part of the, ‘No one is more special than anybody else’ mentality that Realing has made a point to instill in the program.

“Probably the greatest thing that she’s added and that they’ve added is that now that’s the expectation,” Realing said. “That’s the standard: that the program is going to move forward and that as a freshman, when you transfer in, that’s what’s expected of you when you leave four years from now. They’ve grasped that well.”

By the time the season’s over, so too will Klungness’s soccer career. It’s the harsh reality facing Klungness and her senior teammates. But in the days between now and then, they can continue to move the program forward and send history in motion. And there’s no better group that Klungness could think of to go out with.

“They’ve been great friends to me since we were little and they’ve played with me for so long,” she said. “It means so much to have them on the field with me to where we can pick each other up and help each other out.

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Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans

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High School Sports Reporter

Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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