By Pete Hayes, The Telegraph
Marquette coach Steve Mitchell’s team survived three straight postseason overtime shootouts, advanced to the Class 1A state finals and brought home the third-place trophy.
ALTON – That Marquette’s Steve Mitchell is The Telegraph Girls Soccer Coach of the Year probably isn’t much of a surprise to most. After all, his Explorers took a wild playoff ride and captured third place in the IHSA Class 1A State Finals.
But the manner in which the Explorers’ regular season unfolded could be enough for award consideration in itself.
“It was definitely a different kind of season,” Mitchell said. “There were times early in the year I wondered if we were every going to win a game.”
They did. And even though they finished with a 15-10-3 record, the Explorers strength-of-opposition rating would be impressive if such figures were kept.
“That’s the way Marquette has always done it in soccer, girls and boys as far back as I know of,” Mitchell said. “Playing strong teams makes you stronger, win or lose – as long as you learn something from those games.”
The Explorers learned something new during a wild and wacky postseason:
Being good is fine, but being lucky AND good is even better. And having a hot goalie doesn’t hurt either.
Marquette advanced on overtime penalty kicks not once, not twice, but three consecutive games. In semifinals the of the Althoff Sectional Tournament played at McKendree University, the Explorers got past Waterloo Gibault on PKs. Then in the championship game, they outlasted Columbia.
Then came the UIS Super-Sectional in Springfield – and yet another overtime PK battle, this time with Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin. And after the dust had settled, the Explorers found themselves back at the Class 1A Final Four.
In each of those overtime shootouts, the Explorers had some of the same kickers, but a few new wrinkles. Mitchell said that while winning three straight games on penalty kicks was exciting, it opened his team to a possible weakness.
“Other teams scouted us and they saw where we go with our PKs,” Mitchell said. “Sacred Heart was (at McKendree) scouting us against Columbia and I thought, ‘Oh, no.. they’ll know all our shooters’ tendencies.’”
Maybe so, but Mitchell switched a few shooters, inserting a few different ones, including goalie Lauren Fischer and just-returned Lauren Schmickley, who missed a good part of the season with an injury. And voila – a state tourney berth.
One common denominator in those shootouts was the play of Fischer in goal.
“Lauren did a great job in goal,” Mitchell said. “A lot of it is guesswork, but you can watch and see other team’s tendencies – and she is very good at picking up little signals, too.”
Marquette dropped their state semifinal game to eventual state champion Wheaton Academy, but came back to defeat Williamsville in the third-place game.
Annabelle Copeland, an All-Sectional selection and Saint Louis University recruit, was Marquette’s top scorer and one of the team leaders. But she was forced to the bench late in the season for about two weeks with an ankle injury, as was Ketoura Ngwa, the Explorers’ anchor on defense. But the Explorers held fast, got through it and welcomed them back during the regional tournament.
Mitchell stressed that, partly because of the various hardships, this season’s success was as much a combined team effort as any he has coached.
“This group of girls came together,” he said. “It took a little while to get going, but I think they were playing their best toward the end of the season. It was fun – a little crazy at times, but definitely fun.”