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Crusaders keep cool

For Halloween, the St. Mary’s Crusaders dressed up like a bizarro version of themselves. Where’s that star defender? Why is Ibixica Alvarez dropping back? Is that Ainsley Gibbs in the midfield?

The answers all led back to some bad news delivered to head coach Dave Potter shortly before the team’s Class 3A/2A/1A opening round playoff game against Douglas. The net effect of the reshuffled lineup appeared negligible, however, as the Crusaders knifed through the Douglas Trojans’ defense with ease Wednesday, scoring three goals in the first 10 minutes before leaving U.S. Cellular Community Park with a convincing 5-0 victory.

The win, the 12th in a row for St. Mary’s, earned the second-seeded Crusaders a quarterfinal date with seventh-seeded Riverside, which beat Western Christian/Perrydale 1-0 in another round of 16 tilt.

St. Mary’s was one of the hottest teams in the state heading into the playoffs but found out only an hour before its postseason opener that senior defender Grace Weber, one of the best overall players in District 5 this season, would miss the rest of the season with a back injury. With Weber out, Potter moved Alvarez to Weber’s spot and Gibbs to the midfield — all this for a team that had already adapted over the last month to life without sophomore defender Meg Wright (sickness).

“(Alvarez) is a natural soccer player on any line and she has played defender for us many, many times, and she fit right in,” Potter said. “But that means we now have to plug a player into her spot in the midfield, and that was Ainsley Gibbs. We’re moving people a lot all of a sudden.”

If the moves cost the Crusaders (12-1) either chemistry or scoring potential they didn’t show it — at least not against the Trojans (8-4-2), who entered the game having won three straight and five of their last seven.

Only four minutes into the game Meghan Michels, who finished with two goals and two assists, caught up to a perfect lead pass from Maddie Wheelock (one goal, one assist), dribbled past one defender and fired away before two more Trojans converged. Her hard liner inside the right post buzzed past Douglas keeper Adriana Sapp and into the back of the net for a 1-0 Crusaders lead.

“We go into every game expecting it’s going to be a Catlin Gabel, it’s going to be a hard game,” Michels said, “so we just went into this game with our hearts just going for it.”

Three minutes later Michels returned the favor, setting up the tall, speedy Wheelock on a similar breakaway that led to a clean look from about five yards away. Before Douglas defender Hannah Hobson could cut her off, Wheelock booted a low shot past the lunging Sapp to give St. Mary’s a quick 2-0 lead.

“I recognized that Meghan was taking the ball up the field,” Wheelock said. “She had pulled the defender out and then there was this space through the middle, so I just put my arm out and called for it and she played it perfectly.”

Shortly thereafter Michels added to the onslaught with the day’s most impressive display of ball control. After taking a pass from Mia Castillo near the right sideline about 30 yards away from the goal, Michels easily juked out one defender, turned on the jets to split two more then used a hard cut to squeeze past yet another before right-footing a close-range far-post shot past Sapp, who could only reach at air.

“My speed is my big advantage I think,” Michels said.

“They’re both [Michels and Wheelock] very difficult to stop unless you’ve got very quick defenders, and they were able to just penetrate the back line and get some easy shots on goal,” Potter said. “I mean, they created those shots and made them easy. And (Sapp) was a good keeper. Good size, good range. But when you’re point-blank against good finishers...”

The game well in hand, the Crusaders added two more goals before pumping the breaks to avoid running up the score. Alvarez controlled the ball in a crowded box but was able to get off a shot anyway to make it 4-0 in the 33rd, and in the second half Emma Bennion somehow steered a corner kick just inside the near post past a stunned Sapp and a Douglas defender for the final score.

Potter said back-line players Estella Olson, Castillo and Sophia Dobry were sensational Wednesday, denying the Trojans from generating any offense. Indeed, St. Mary’s outshot the visitors 14-1 in the first half and 25-2 overall. The Crusaders’ onslaught included 14 shots on goal.

Now, St. Mary’s turns its attention to a Riverside team that’s 9-2-3 after pulling out its fifth straight win Wednesday.

“Every single opponent from here on out is going to be a challenge for us,” Wheelock said. “We just have to play well.”

As for Michels, she admitted she didn’t know who the Crusaders might be matched up with in the quarterfinals. That, she said, is beside the point.

“All I know is we gotta go in same as today,” she said. “All out.”

Mail Tribune sports reporter Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

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