There’s a plethora of reasons why this year’s Rock Springs’ girls could be considered the best team they’ve had during their current run atop the Class 4A West Regional.
They have one of the state’s most natural scorers backed by a talented team that returns eight other starters from last year’s team. That doesn’t even include the return of Lilliana Hernandez, a senior midfielder that missed last season due to injury. Plus, the Tigers can’t seem to stop scoring while just one team this season has scored on them.
Possibly the biggest reason why this team is better than any of the Tigers’ team that have won the Class 4A West Conference three years in a row is because they’ve relived the 4-1 loss to Gillette in the quarterfinals of last year’s state tournament for almost a full calendar year now.
“It still hurts,” head coach Stephen Pyer said. “We’re kind of getting tired of getting beat 4-1 so we’re trying to play at a different level and at a different pace so we can have a different outcome.”
Rock Springs completed a perfect regular season (16-0) and enters this year’s 4A West Regional as the No. 1 seed. That means they will be the only team to not play on Thursday, as they’ve already clinched a state tournament berth. They’ll face the winner between Natrona County and Star Valley for a 2 p.m. kickoff on Friday. The Tigers outscored Natrona County 14-0 in two games and outscored Jackson 8-0 in two games this season.
Most of those netted goals came via junior floater Alyssa Bedard, who enters regionals with 26 goals. She’s provided the Tigers with the leadership of a captain’s armband, just one year after coming on last year as a talented sophomore.
“Out team has done really well this season and our chemistry, on and off the field, has really helped,” Bedard said. “I think we’re looking really good going into regionals and state.”
Bedard can easily find teammates and create chances from a floating position as well as finish chances in the box. Her unselfish ability to look for another option instead of instinctively send a shot on frame isn’t lost on her teammates or coach.
“As you can tell, she’s always around and always touching the ball,” Pyer explained. “Possession-wise, defense-wise, her and four or five of the other girls can really play the game at a high level.”
Both the captain and coach acknowledge the importance of the younger players on this year’s team. Bedard is one of several who started playing in Rock Springs at 4 years old and continued to play through the ranks. Rock Springs’ club team, Avengers, has helped players experience a high level of soccer before reaching the varsity level. And it’s that immediate impact they feel has kept the Tigers from achieving their full potential in years past.
Bedard explained that they’ve increased intensity throughout the season, stressing importance every day, so they don’t suffer the same lackluster start that has doomed them in previous years.
“We’ve been really trying to work on that so we can come out in the first minute of the first half at state and start at that high level instead of taking the first half to work to that level, which is what’s happened in the last few years,” Bedard said. “So I think our biggest thing is coming out strong in the first half at state.”
While Rock Springs watches on Thursday, every one else will play for their state tournament lives. Natrona County qualified last year but finds itself the underdog to 4A newcomer Star Valley. That game will be played on the Natrona County Auxiliary Field directly adjacent to Cheney Alumni Field for a 4 p.m. kickoff.
The No. 2 seed Kelly Walsh girls start the day’s action on Cheney Alumni Field with a noon kickoff against No. 7 Evanston. The Red Devils are winless and the Trojans are coming off a disappointing loss to the top-seed Tigers. Whoever wins that match will go on to face the winner of Jackson and Green River. Both of those sides advanced to state last year but now they find themselves in a must-win noon kickoff on the Auxiliary Field.
The Kelly Walsh boys achieved the No. 1 seed by sweeping all three matches last week. They will play at noon on Friday at Cheney Alumni Field against the winner between Rock Springs and Green River. The Wolves enter that match with the momentum of a win on Saturday while Rock Springs is winless in its last five.
Hosting Natrona County earned the No. 6 seed and plays Jackson. The defending state champions need to knock off the Broncs in order to return to state. The winner of that will play the winner between No. 2 Star Valley and No. 7 Evanston. The Braves were semifinalists in Class 3A last year and come into the weekend hot. Evanston could be a potential upset threat for its first state tournament bid, as the Red Devils have played well over the past two weeks.