KOKOMO — As 20-mile-per-hour winds gusted and stifled Wheeler's attack on Saturday, the undefeated Bearcats girls soccer team faced its toughest test of the season in its Class A semistate game against Lafayette Central Catholic.
The ball rolled all over the turf field on set pieces, and long passes felt impossible as the wind blew across the field from sideline to sideline. Wheeler had scored at least three goals in every game this season and hadn't played a truly close game — the Bearcats found themselves in a new position after the Knights equalized off a rebound and remained even at halftime. But the killer instinct and all-around talent resurfaced after a halftime chat that reorganized the Bearcats and sent them to the state title game with a 2-1 win.
“We shouldn't have let that goal go in. None of us followed back, which was a mistake on our part, because we were all the way back (up the field),” senior midfielder Lauren Putz said. “But we knew we're a senior-heavy team. We didn't want it to be our last game forever.”
Treetops bent diagonally and flags whipped in the wind as Wheeler struggled to find chances after an opening-minute goal from Claudia Philips, but the Bearcats showed toughness even as their biggest strength looked hamstrung. As the Knights built through the midfield and kept the ball from Wheeler more than it is accustomed to, the Bearcats turned to the counter-attack.
Wheeler's seniors broke forward all match long and wouldn't let adverse weather end their season short of the title game. Bearcats goalkeeper Alaina Hill didn't get caught out of position, and Tessa Haldeman found the perfect weight on a cross into the wind in the 51st minute. Lauren Putz settled the ball at her feet with plenty of room 10 yards from goal and converted what coach Bryan Murray said was as good a goal Wheeler has scored this season.
“I saw the ball coming to me, and I kind of freaked out, because I was like, 'OK, I can't miss this,'” Putz said. “I'm left-footed, so hitting it with my right foot was definitely a risk, but it was a risk I was willing to take, and it ended up working out.”
Wheeler (22-0) ranks first in the Indiana Soccer Coaches Association poll and will face No. 2 Evansville Mater Dei with revenge on its mind after a 1-0 overtime loss to the Wildcats in the title game last year. With a win over the No. 3 team in the state under its belt despite not playing its cleanest soccer, Wheeler feels ready.
“It's another opportunity,” Murray said. “The four best teams in 1A played it out today, and we're gonna get a chance to go with Mater Dei here.”