The Watertown-Mayer girls soccer program has been steadily rising towards becoming a powerhouse program for several years now. Each year they take another step and achieve something that has never been done before. On Tuesday night, that trend continued, when the Royals took maybe their biggest step forward in a 3-2 victory over the No. 4 ranked Orono Spartans.
“I can't describe it,” said Alaina Thonn. “We've never done this before.”
The Royals had never defeated the Spartans, nor held a lead in any matchup. The perennial powerhouse that is Orono, had always gotten the better of Watertown-Mayer, even if in recent years that margin lessened. So when the Spartans scored an early goal, it looked like that would continue. Yet the Royals refused to quit.
“We had not been down all season, so it was a different feeling,” coach Joseph Perez said of the team's 5-0 start to the year. “But the girls stayed with it, they stayed in the battle.”
It wasn't easy however. The Royals played the Spartans pretty evenly throughout the first half, with the defense and midfield holding strong. It was just the final ball that eluded them. Watertown-Mayer let Thonn chase down long balls and Jordyn Salzsiedler had some good runs down the sideline, but there always seemed to be one extra defender.
So when Julia Otto played a ball into the box with 8 minutes remaining, a split second made all the difference in the game. Maris Heun dashed in from the opposite side and somehow got a boot on the ball before the sliding goalkeeper got a hand on it. The result was a 50/50 battle that was won by Heun, with the ball popping up and bouncing slowly into the net to knot the game at 1-1.
“That was huge - I think if we were down at the half, I don't think we would have come out as motivated,” Heun said. “When it's a tie score, you're always more motivated. Sometimes it can be hard if you're down.”
On that goal, the momentum and the energy of the game changed. It was not if Orono fell flat afterwards, as the Spartans continued to play hard. It was David striking Goliath. Watertown-Mayer knew they could win.
“I think we made them realize that we were here to stay,” said Perez. “We're not just here to get pushed over.”
The Royals came out of the break energized, controlling the tempo for much of the second half. They threw several attacking chances forward and kept Orono from building much of an attack.
The Orono defense held firm until the hard work of Watertown-Mayer paid off. The mantra of the team under coach Perez has been that no matter the result, no one will out-work the Royals. On Tuesday night, that was personified by Thonn.
Run after run by Thonn was turned away for much of the 80 minutes. The center forward would break free and get past one defender, only to meet another. Yet she continued to sprint down the field, even when it was clear she would not get to the ball first.
“Those are the unsung heroes,” Perez said. “People like that who make hustle plays, they don't go on the stat sheet. But her out there, putting pressure on their defense, making them make mistakes, that's what it's about.”
Her hustle play midway through the second half helped the Royals get the lead, just not in the way she may have intended. For the second time in the game, a shot ricocheted forcefully off of her head. After she got hit in the face this time, she wondered why everyone was excited.
“I was on the ground and everyone was cheering, and I was like, 'For me?,'” she laughed.
Thonn's run toward the loose ball had her just feet away from the goalie's clearing attempt, which struck her in the head. The ball then bounced to the corner of the 18, where Maris Heun was ready to pounce. The net was open, but the angle was tough and the pressure was on. Not that it mattered to Watertown-Mayer's all-time scoring leader.
“You just have to quick think it because in these types of games against good teams, you never know how many chances you are going to get,” Heun said. “You can't mess around with that ball. So when Alaina over here got hit in the face, I just thought, there is no goalie in the net, you just have to take the shot.”
And with the left-footed strike, for the first time ever, the Royals had a lead on the Spartans.
As excited as the Royals were, there was plenty of time left. A team like Orono, coming off an appearance in the state championship, does not reach those heights because they give up. There was a little more than 20 minutes left and the Spartans were just one goal back. A conference title was potentially on the line, as Watertown-Mayer held the conference lead going into the contest, following a 1-1 tie between Orono and Waconia. With how successful those three teams have been in recent years, one loss usually means being removed from title contention in the Wright County Conference (Waconia and Orono split the title with 8-0-1 records last year).
So despite how well the Royals played, it was no surprise that the Spartans would manage a scoring opportunity to try and escape with a tie. Orono manufactured a late goal with 6 minutes remaining and the energy shifted back towards a deadlock. But once again, Perez' emphasis of winning the game in the final minutes based on effort and conditioning elevated the Royals.
“We easily could have held our heads, left it there and even let in another goal, that's happened before,” Heun said. “I'm just really proud of us that we kept our heads up, kept going.”
With less than 3 minutes remaining, Thonn found Heun in the box. And once again, Heun booted it home, this time for the game-winner and a hat trick.
“She's amazing, she continues to amaze me every game,” Perez said. “The expectations are going to get bigger for her and she is going to do great things in life. She is very humble, very hungry and I hope the best for her. I'm just happy she is on my side.”
Heun credited Thonn with the last two goals, as the center forward returned from a trip to the trainer, getting a bag of ice to treat the barrage of hits she took in the win. Thonn joked that she got hit just a little bit, with Heun heaping on praise.
“Those two goals wouldn't have happened if she wasn't moving because she distracted the goalie, she distracted the center back,” Heun said. “Those goals couldn't have happened without her.”
The Royals left it all on the field Tuesday night, sending a message to those who don't know their name.
“When they tied it at 2-2, it would have been an amazing score [for us],” said Perez. “But we were not settling for the tie. We wanted the W. Three minutes left and we put it in - it shows that our team is here to stay and our program is relevant. And we beat a good team, that makes us more proud. We beat an excellent, excellent program. Hopefully it gets us on the map. We don't get recognized in the city, we're not ranked, but we just knocked off a very good team. Now hopefully people start to recognize that we have a pretty good program.”