Monticello beats STM in penalty kicks to advance to regional final

May 12—MONTICELLO — One hundred minutes wasn't enough to decide which girls' soccer team would move on to the Class 1A Monticello Regional championship.

For 80 minutes of regulation and another 20 of overtime on Saturday, the host Sages and St. Thomas More traded blows, fighting for possession, exciting the crowd with numerous scoring chances and seeing their goalies make save after save to keep the score at 1-1.

It was going to come down to penalty kicks.

Freshman phenom Leighton Clark stepped up first for STM, and she found the back of the net, shooting the ball just off the fingertips of a diving Allison Nebelsick in goal for the Sages.

Monticello junior Elle Bodznick, who scored the first goal of the game in regulation, had the answer, speeding one past Saber goalie Campbell Phillips.

Nebelsick and Phillips traded saves through the next pair before Megan Allen tucked one just under the crossbar to give the Sages the advantage.

Nebelsick stopped the next Saber attempt, too, making her 3 for 4 to that point and setting up an opportunity for Monticello to win on its next try.

Sylvie Harvey was the one tasked with ending it, and she did just that, firing her shot into the left side of the net to give the Sages a thrilling 2-1 win after penalty kicks.

"It was a bunch of pressure and anxiety," Nebelsick said. "You're just hoping you can get a hand on it, save it and take your team to where they want to go."

For Monticello, that's the regional final, where it'll play Bloomington Central Catholic at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. The Sages (21-3) now have their eyes set on winning just their second regional title in program history and their first since 2009. And if any Monticello squad were to do it, this would be the one.

The Sages have rewritten their history books this season. That 2009 regional championship season was the first time the Sages had reached a double-digit win total, ending their run with a record of 11-7-1. Last year was the first time they had gotten back to that milestone, setting a new bar with 14 wins. They blew by that single-season wins record this year, setting a couple individual records along the way. Nebelsick became the team's all-time leader in shutouts, and sophomore Addison Finet set a new single-season goals mark.

The Sages are having the best season in the program's 28-year history by far, but Saturday was a perfect reminder of how quickly it can end.

"You take all the accomplishments we've had this year, but (Saturday), we were really close to going home," Monticello coach David McDaniel said. "We've been saying all week that anything can happen in the playoffs. Records, rankings and jersey colors don't matter. It's just two teams coming to play."

The Sabers (6-10-2) proved that, giving everything they had in their final game of the season. They went into the semifinal matchup as a heavy underdog, and while STM never led, it gave the Sages a fight they didn't appear to have expected.

Monticello kept the ball on the offensive side of the field for most of the first half, which led to many scoring opportunities but only one goal. Bodznick finally broke the scoreless tie in the 31st minute, and STM had Phillips and its defense to thank for not facing a wider halftime deficit.

The Sabers lost their starting goalie to injury just a couple weeks ago, and Phillips "got thrown into" the position, according to STM coach Josh Stebbins. Phillips, a sophomore, showed promise all season in a different spot, but she shined in just her third game in the net on Saturday against one of the best teams in the area.

"To see that kind of talent is a coach's dream," Stebbins said. "She got to showcase the goalkeeping talent (Saturday) and didn't even get to showcase the talent and natural athleticism she has on the field."

Phillips continued her strong play the rest of the game, keeping the ball out of the net until penalty kicks.

Meanwhile, STM was ramping up the pressure offensively. One of the Sabers' halftime adjustments was getting junior Mary Katheryn Kluesner more involved with the offense. It worked, as she had multiple shots just wide of the net early in the second half before firing one right off Nebelsick's hands in the 60th minute to allow Luciana Grant an easy game-tying tap-in.

STM also went into this season as an underdog, having lost eight senior starters from the year before. Kluesner and Clark were the only players on the roster with club soccer experience, so they knew this would be a rebuilding year. The fact that the Sabers was a couple penalty kicks away from reaching the regional championship shows how much they grew throughout the season.

"We've usually just been playing kickball, just kicking the ball and running," Kluesner said. "Everyone was on the same page and hyping each other up all week. We wanted to beat them. We didn't get the outcome we wanted, but we battled. ... We emphasized playing as a team and having fun. We just played together, and I'm so proud of the girls."

In the postgame huddle, it was all smiles for the Sabers as Kluesner and Clark emphasized just how much of an accomplishment this season was given what was expected of them. Kluesner even admitted, "I've never been happier after losing a game."

"To see them come together like that in the final game of the season ... as a coach, those are genuinely the proudest moments you have," Stebbins said. "I always tell teams at the beginning of the season that my goal, whether they learn something new on the field or personally develop off the field, that's just as big of a win as if we would have won this game."

STM doesn't have nearly as many seniors graduating this year, and Stebbins is excited for the campaign his group will put together next year.

Monticello will also undoubtedly be successful again next year, as it will bring back a of core juniors and a handful of talented underclassmen, but the Sages still have work to do before they think about that.

"They play well as a unit. There's a lot of trust there," McDaniel said. "The girls have been working hard all season. You play 80 minutes and add 20 more, it's a grind physically but maybe even more mentally. We're a little drained now, but we'll be ready come Tuesday."