Oct. 24—ST. CHARLES — Taige Puetz is wondering if another trip to the Como Zoo might be just the thing for her state-bound St. Charles/Lewiston-Altura soccer team.
Seeing animals up close sure seemed to do it for her team the morning of Sept. 30. The Saints followed up that zoo visit a few hours later with a signature and possibly season-changing 3-0 win over the No. 3-ranked team in the state, Minnehaha Academy, doing it on the Redhawks' home turf in Minneapolis.
So, Puetz is thinking about a return to that St. Paul zoo as her team prepares to play in its second straight state tournament. It begins 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, with the No. 3-seeded Saints taking on unseeded St. Croix Preparatory Academy at Irondale High School.
"We want to do something low key before our game," Puetz said. "We loved going to the Como Zoo. That was a great way to be together."
Sept. 30 doesn't just go down as a day that the Saints learned more about the habits of exotic animals, but also plenty about themselves. The No. 1 nugget gleaned was that they can play with anyone. After all, Minnehaha Academy was the second-ranked team in the state when the Saints shut them out 3-0.
The realization of their own greatness has stuck with the Saints ever since. That figures to provide big dividends now, as they set their sights on doing big things in the state tournament.
What happened last year also should help. It was then that SCLA advanced to state for the first time in school history. It fell in the first round, but just barely (1-0) to St. Paul Academy.
That also provided confidence as well as inspiration to take things to another level this season.
They've done it. SCLA enters the state tournament a glitzy 16-1-2. They've done it despite having taken on a rugged schedule that includes having played and beaten top-five ranked Lourdes twice. The final meeting came in the Section 1, Class 1A championship, the Saints a dramatic 1-0 shootout winner.
"Beating Lourdes was a new thing for us," Puetz said. "We survived that (playoff) game. No matter what happens, we did what we set out to do, beating some really good teams. Now we want to make more memories."
SCLA heads to state looking as formidable offensively as it does defensively. The Saints are scoring 3.8 goals per game, while giving up just 0.5.
SCLA has two of the state's most prolific scorers, Samantha Perez and Araceli White. A junior, Perez has scored 29 goals and has eight assists. White, a senior who missed four games with an injury but is healthy now, has 21 goals and nine assists.
The Saints' defense is backed by one of the state's best goalies, Makadyn Gust. The all-around athletic star has a .915 save percentage and has helped her team post 11 shutouts.
By the time Chris Dick got to the Pine Island/Zumbrota-Mazeppa team bus, the number of congratulatory emails and text messages waiting for him was overflowing.
The PIZM girls soccer coach was just 20 minutes removed from his team having glided to its first state tournament, beating Stewartville 4-0 in the Section 2, Class 1A championship game in Austin.
This section championship was years in the making and hotly anticipated. It almost happened one year earlier when PIZM barely fell in the section title game to annual state power Lourdes, losing 1-0 in overtime.
Now, finally, a state-tournament trip is theirs. The unseeded Wildcats begin this maiden voyage at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, taking on No. 1 seed Providence Academy at Eden Prairie High School.
Dick, in his sixth year as the PIZM head coach and 16th year in the program overall, is able to put a finger on why this is the team to finally make it to the promised land. Their togetherness combined with the way they go about their business is special, and that was also years in the making.
"I've seen a lot of players go through our program with potential," Dick said. "When I took over the program, I wanted to instill a culture of players supporting each other. I texted my daughter (2023 Pine Island graduate and former PIZM player Bethany Dick) after the game and told her I thought of her class last night. They were a part of what we've done, with the older kids instructing the younger ones as they've gone through the system. It's cool to see that on this team, displaying that now."
The Wildcats haven't been an overwhelming team as they bring to state a 10-6-1 record, an offense that produces 2.7 goals per game and a defense that allows 1.7 goals per game.
But they've used the last two months to gradually make a jump. There was a long way to go. In their season opener, they took on No. 3-ranked Minnehaha Academy and were thumped, 10-1.
They learned from it.
"We knew we had some holes to plug going into that game," said Dick, whose team has won nine of its past 11 games. "It wasn't just plug and play going into this year. We had to figure out how to communicate on the field. The biggest realization that came out of that (Minnehaha) match was that we had to improve. We had talent on defense, but defense is such a team effort and an understanding of how to play together."
Buoyed by one of the better goalies in southeastern Minnesota, senior Ava Knott, the Wildcats have gotten things together. In nine of their last 10 games, they've allowed a total of just three goals. That includes shutting out two of their three opponents in the section tournament.
The PIZM goal scoring has been balanced. Junior Elena Hartung has 11 goals and three assists, freshman Caroline Sems nine goals and nine assists, and sophomore Olivia Wiggins eight goals and four assists.
The Winona girls are making their second straight state tournament appearance in Class 2A.
The Winhawks bring a 17-1-1 record into a tournament in which they've drawn the No. 3 seed. Winona begins play at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, taking on unseeded Cloquet-Carlton at White Bear Lake High School.
The Winhawks, who fell in the first round at state last year. average 3.8 goals per game while giving up 0.7.
Class 1A state tournament pairings
Class 2A state tournament pairings