DEMOTTE | It's not supposed to work this way.
The cliche usually applied to a team with two seniors and led by a group of sophomores is that it's a rebuilding year and the future is bright.
Just don't tell that to the Kankakee Valley girls soccer team, which is led by a trio of sophomores in Hannah Wilder, Haleigh Wenglarz and Natalie Lotz.
"I wouldn't trade these three for any three players in the state, and I mean that," coach John Hufnagel said. "These kids are the real deal."
The results seem to prove Hufnagel's assessment. The Kougars ran through the Northwest Crossroad Conference without taking a loss -- the first undefeated conference championship in K.V. history.
Wilder has scored 24 goals and notched nine assists. Wenglarz has 13 goals and seven assists, while Lotz added seven goals and six assists from the center midfield.
Those goals come in bunches, too. Wilder has three hat tricks and nine multi-goal games. Wenglarz has a pair of hat tricks in five multi-goal games. Lotz finished the regular season with consecutive two-goal performances.
"The system we play in is all about letting these kids shine," Hufnagel said.
It wasn't always so nice, though. Early on in the season, injuries and doubt hindered the Kougars as they couldn't seem to beat the bigger schools.
"I didn't really think we were going to be anything," Wilder said.
The team was on edge heading into its game against Munster, a perennial N.C.C. power. But Wilder took charge, scoring three goals -- the last of which won the game in the final minutes.
"That was my best game of the year," Wilder said. "That's when I knew we could really do this."
The victory over the Mustangs started a string of conference wins against more experienced teams.
"It's fun (to be beat teams with older girls)," Wenglarz said. "Just because they're older doesn't mean they're better. They can get cocky."
What K.V. has that other teams may lack is chemistry. Wilder and Wenglarz are cousins, who've been playing together their whole lives. Lotz has been playing club ball with both for years.
The group has developed a reputation in the community, Lotz said. Everybody knows how much soccer means to them.
"It's playing with all your friends," Lotz said. "When your friends play hard, you want to play hard."
From here, though, Kankakee Valley is going to have to beat Duneland Athletic Conference schools to advance in the postseason. To win a sectional, the Kougars will have to go through Merrillville and Crown Point.
"We're excited for winning the conference, but what we're really looking at is the sectional and maybe more," Wilder said.
The Kougars insist they're a different team than the one that took the pitch in August and early September.
"We have not maxed out," Hufnagel said. "We can play with 'em; I have zero doubt."