A penalty kick shootout loss to Andrean ended Wheeler's 2016 girls soccer season.
As bitter of a pill as that was to swallow, the Bearcats' incentive for 2017 didn't come so much from that defeat as it did from Andrean's subsequent run to the Class A state championship.
"We had it on our foot to win and it didn't go our way," Wheeler coach Bryan Murray said. "But that game didn't really serve as a springboard to this year. Andrean ended up steamrolling the rest of the tournament. More than anything, that validated that somebody from Northwest Indiana could win the state title. The biggest thing it did was it motivated the girls to get to work."
A little over a calendar year later and Wheeler hasn't lost another match. Ranked No. 1 in Class A, the 20-0 Bearcats head to South Bend St. Joseph on Saturday in pursuit of their first state finals berth, a rise to prominence that may have flown a little under the radar as a smaller school but shouldn't be construed in any way as surprising.
The Bearcats have been good for a while, winning 99 matches in Murray's six seasons. Before losing to Andrean in the last two sectionals, it reached the final eight in 2013 and 2014, bowing out against Fort Wayne Luers and Canterbury.
"Of all my teams, this one believes they belong," Murray said. "The others felt good about themselves, but this one believes they're the best team in the state of Indiana. We don't presume anything, but we talk about playing like we're the best team in the state."
Wheeler prepped over the summer by playing Terre Haute North, Bloomington South, Crown Point and Valparaiso in a team camp at Indiana State. Its regular season, which included 2A sectional champions Highland and West Lafayette, boasts a goal differential of 134 to 11.
"We have a lot of kids who can play," Murray said. "The amount of talent we have, it took some adjustments from a couple people. We had two, three conversations with kids to understand that you might not always start, but you're going to play key minutes. With that collective ability, the challenge has been to get them to buy into being unselfish and this is the most unselfish team I've ever coached."
Nothing can undermine a good team, in any sport, like a me mentality, and while Wheeler has its undisputed star in Lyric Green and a couple more big-time playmakers in Riley Garcia and Claudia Philips, there isn't an issue with people being out to get their own. Amber Handley, Sydney Eden, Katlynn Mistina, Lauren Putz, and seniors Kaitlyn Asher, Franny Zeitler and keeper Cheyenne Foor have all played key roles.
"I stress all the time that they don't care who scores the goals," Murray said. "We have kids whose job it is to score goals and kids who job it is to play defense, and they take their jobs seriously. To a person, they accept their roles and get to work. With those different abilities, we can go at people in different ways. More than anything, we want people to play at our pace, run their legs out, and it pays off in the second half of matches."
The Wheeler team story is not uncommon to soccer at a small school, many of the players coming up through the youth soccer ranks together.
"A lot of us started in the little rec league when we were like 3," Putz, a junior midfielder, said. "We played Union Township until like U10, then got on travel teams together. By playing together, we know where are teammates are going to be, where they want the ball. A lot of teams, when things don't go well, take it out on each other, but we all get along really well. We've all really connected. There's more team bonding."
Classmate and fellow midfielder Tessa Haldeman came to Wheeler from Lisle, Illinois, as a freshman, and fit in right away.
"The team was very welcoming," Haldeman said. "We have the ability to connect with each other, even outside of soccer. You can always come up to one another in the hallway and talk to them. We support each other. We definitely have faith in each other. We push each other to our limits, which helps a lot."
Having reached the final four for the first time, Wheeler looks to take the next step Saturday against Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian.
"There's a desire to protect what we've established through hard work," Murray said. "They're motivated to try to get to Indianapolis."