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Wheeler vs. Bishop Noll in girls soccer sectional

Wheeler teammates share high-fives with Riley Garcia, right, after she scored against Bishop Noll recently in a Class A sectional final. The Bearcats hope to celebrate a state title Saturday.

As Wheeler’s girls soccer team left the field after a 1-0 overtime loss to Evansville Mater Dei in the Class A state championship last year, the Bearcats didn’t just reflect on the season that was. Already, they had redemption on their mind.

“Definitely from the moment that we lost at state, I already knew that we were gonna come back,” sophomore midfielder Gia Diaz said.

Head coach Bryan Murray said he didn’t watch film from Wheeler’s loss to Mater Dei until Tuesday, and he has instilled a business-like culture where the Bearcats stay loose off the field but never lose focus while on it. That attitude helped the Bearcats start 22-0, but the prospect of facing Mater Dei again sat in the back of their minds. They’ll get that shot on at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in Indianapolis.

Amid a season where the Bearcats scored 145 goals and allowed 12, it follows that they’ve been preparing for something bigger. With as lethal as Wheeler’s offense has been, it wasn’t so in last year’s loss to Mater Dei. Wheeler, ranked No. 1 in the Indiana Soccer Coaches Association poll for Class A, hopes No. 2 Mater Dei sees a far different team Saturday.

“How the game plays out is insanely important, but it’s a representation of how much hard work we’ve put in and how the team has changed from last year to this year,” senior goalkeeper Alaina Hill said. “This (season) is my first chance to be able to start for Wheeler, and I feel like it’s insanely meaningful, because this is it. This is us.”

Wheeler emphasized that overall togetherness and cohesion in the midfield will be two key factors on Saturday, and the Bearcats will need to play sharp passes if they’re to break through a Mater Dei defense that has allowed only two goals in five postseason games. Senior forward Claudia Philips said Wheeler hopes to use both sides of the field and leverage its well-roundedness, but perhaps the Bearcats’ biggest advantage compared to last year is its experience.

“I feel like a lot of us are returning from last year, so there’s not as much nerves there, whereas last year, it was like, ‘Oh my god, we’re in the state championship. This has never happened to us before,’” senior midfielder Lauren Putz said. “Now, I think we’ve matured a little bit, and we know how to deal with it a little bit better.”

The Bearcats get all they’ve asked for: A return to state, a rematch with Mater Dei and a chance to assert supremacy in a matchup of Class A’s top two teams. Finally, the moment is here.

“They had a bit of relief when it came to winning the semi-state,” Murray said. “Expectations, I think, were unfairly placed on them early on, assuming that it would be very easy for them to get back. … I think you’re gonna see a relaxed, confident team on Saturday.”

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Robbie Weinstein covers Porter County prep sports and Valparaiso University athletics for The Times. You can find the Vanderbilt University and Northwestern University grad posted up on the nearest field of play or in front of the TV.