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August 14, 2018

10/27/2017 10:54:00 AM
'Cats finally break through for a state tournament bid in Section 7

The Wildcat boys’ soccer team is headed to the state tournament.  After going zero for four in section championship games over the past 12 years, Nils Gulbranson and Ryan Mower led the #1-seeded Wildcats to a 3-1 win over the #4-seeded Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers in the Section 7A championship game Thursday, October 19 at Duluth Denfeld High School.  Longtime Wildcat head coach Mark Leigh is always the first one to tell you it’s all about the kids.  But this is certainly a nice parting gift for Leigh, who is retiring after this season.

The Wildcats controlled the ball for the majority of the first half.  But there was enough ball movement up and down the field to help provide the space the Wildcat offense needed in order to operate at peak efficiency.  In the eighth minute of the first half, Wildcat goalkeeper Reece Lawlor launched a goal kick deep down the field.  A Wildcat midfielder trapped it and knocked it ahead to Gulbranson near the top of the Marshall box.  Gulbranson worked to the right around a defender and toward the net.  He took a shot, but the goalkeeper had moved right in front of him and blocked it.  The ball rolled a few feet back and stopped.  Mower, who had been trailing the play, was Johnny-on-the-spot and tapped the ball across the goal line and into the net to give the Wildcats an early 1-0 lead.
The Wildcats had two more good scoring chances over the next few minutes, but didn’t convert.  In the 16th minute, Gulbranson freed himself up about 30 yards out from the net on the left side  He tried to thread a pass through to Mower.  The ball was blocked before it got to Mower, but Jacob Lowrey corralled it and fed it to Mower, who put it into the net for a 2-0 Wildcat lead.  The Wildcats controlled play for the rest of the half.

The Wildcats seemed a bit tired early in the second half and Marshall came out fired up.  They made several runs down the right side of the field and put some crosses into the box, but Lawlor grabbed the crosses or knocked them away, not allowing the Hilltoppers any decent shots.  In the tenth minute, Marshall was awarded a free kick near the top of the 18 yard box.  He popped the ball into the middle of the box and one of their players rose up and knocked it into the net to cut the Wildcat lead to 2-1.

The Wildcats seemed to get a boost of energy after the Marshall goal.  In the 20th minute, Mower had a nice shot from about 15 yards out and put it a couple of feet over the crossbar.  In the 21st minute, Gulbranson was shoved just outside the top of the Hilltopper 18 yard box a few feet to the left of center and the Wildcats were awarded a free kick.  Gulbranson curled the ball around the wall and it glanced off a Marshall player and into the net to give the Wildcats a three goal lead.

After that third goal, the wind seemed to go out of the Marshall sails.  The Marshall goalkeeper made a nice save with three minutes to go to keep it within two.  With 20 seconds left in the game, the Wildcats were called for a foul in their box and a penalty kick was awarded.  The Marshall player ripped a shot toward the inside of the right post.  Lawlor guessed correctly, dove and knocked the ball away.  The clock started to run.  But the assistant referee on the far side was waving his flag.  He called the center referee over and it was ruled that Lawlor had come off of his line before the Marshall player took the shot.  The referee put 16 seconds back on the clock for the second attempt at the penalty shot.  This time, the ball was kicked almost straight at Lawlor.  He didn’t have to move much to knock the ball away.  The clock ran down and, a few seconds later, Wildcat players, coaches and fans were celebrating the first section championship in Wildcat boys’ soccer history.

Gulbranson said, “When these guys beat us a few weeks ago, it was on a wet, sloppy field.  But tonight, we showed that when we play them on a nice turf field, we’ve got them every time.”  
Lawlor said, “I’m trying to wake up from this dream right now.  I can’t even put how this feels into words.  Before the game, I told Mark ‘we are doing this for you.  You’ve done so much and we are getting you there.’  We dominated this game.  

“During the second half, everyone was exhausted but we pushed through and it’s just amazing how the team came together like that and gave it their all.”  

Ryan Mower, who scored two goals, for the Wildcats, said, “I can’t believe it.  It’s pretty exciting that Chisago got to state for the first time in soccer.”  Coach Leigh was calm but happy after the game.  He said, “I’ve been through so many of these, I figured it could go one way or the other.  We’ve got the horses, so I figured I’d open the gate and let them run.  The entire starting lineup came through tonight.”
* The ‘Cats fell in their opening round state game to Totino-Grace 4-0. For full story and pictures, check out next week’s County Press.

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