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Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSt Mary’s girls soccer trio, from left to right, Maddie Wheelock, Gabi Castillo and Meghan Michels lead the Crusaders into the state semifinals.

PREP NOTEBOOK: St. Mary’s, Phoenix vie for finals

Five years ago, St. Mary’s girls soccer coach Dave Potter diagnosed that the only thing his talented South Medford boys soccer teams seemed to be missing in the early 2000s was the same kind of “cocky confidence” that allowed their opponents to gain the upper hand toward the end stages of the state playoffs.

Potter’s 2003 team carried that swagger throughout the large-school playoffs, and that year has proven to be the last in which a local soccer team brought home a state title (St. Mary’s boys also won in 2003 at the 2A/1A level).

“You can’t go into a state tournament match without having total confidence and a little chip on your shoulder,” Potter said around this time in 2013. “You just have to step up and do the things you do well and not second-guess yourself. Confidence is a big factor in all of that.”

Tuesday will offer a chance for three local teams to take a big step and advance to their respective championship finals on Saturday, and each has every reason to carry a high level of confidence into their semifinal matchups.

St. Mary’s has its boys and girls soccer teams in action, with the third-seeded Crusader boys playing on the road at No. 2 Catlin Gabel while the second-seeded Crusader girls — under Potter’s direction — will play host to No. 3 Oregon Episcopal at U.S. Cellular Community Park. Both games begin at 4 p.m.

With no lights at Colver Field, the top-seeded Phoenix boys will move their 4 p.m. semifinal against No. 13 North Marion to South Medford High, where head coach Dennis Flenner got his coaching start before transitioning to Phoenix.

“It’s been a really fun season,” said Potter on Monday, “and I think the girls have their heads in the right place and are looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge tomorrow.”

Of all the matchups, the St. Mary’s girls game against OES is the most intriguing, largely due to the remarkable history between the top-tier programs. The Crusaders and Aardvarks will be meeting for the eighth time in an elimination game since 2008, and seventh time in the semifinal round.

“I’m trying to figure out if its a memorable history or a forgettable history,” Potter said with a laugh.

Oregon Episcopal beat St. Mary’s, 3-1, in the 2008 state quarterfinals to open a decade of interactions, with the Crusaders gaining revenge in 2010 with a 4-1 semifinal win that put them into their only final under Potter, where they lost 2-0 to Catlin Gabel.

Since then, however, it’s been all Aardvarks.

Oregon Episcopal won semifinal matches in three straight years from 2011-13, with results of 5-1, 2-0 and 1-0, respectively. In 2015, it was the Aardvarks taking a 2-0 triumph, and last year OES surged to a 6-1 victory that helped catapult it to a fourth straight Class 3A/2A/1A state title — and sixth title in the last seven years (OES was runner-up in 2013).

“We won that 2010 match 4-1 and I feel like they’ve punished us ever since,” said Potter.

“There’s been a couple matches where they definitely had the upper hand and they dealt us some blows, like last year,” he added. “We played 20 minutes of even soccer with them and then they put a ball in and it just catapulted what they were doing and we found our backs against the wall. Most of the rest of them were highly competitive and we ended up losing by one or two (goals).”

While the series history hasn’t been in St. Mary’s favor, most of those games were played in Portland and this year’s version of the Crusaders is as talented and capable as any team Potter has fielded.

“They always have numbers with premier level players,” said Potter, “but I’m hoping that this year, I’ve got a little better number than I’ve had in the past and a little more balance. I’m hoping that helps us out.”

St. Mary’s enters with a 13-1 record and OES is 13-2 — with one common opponent in their losses: Catlin Gabel. The Eagles pinned an 8-3 loss on the Crusaders in their season opener, and went on to score 3-0 and 1-0 wins over the Aardvarks, the former ending a streak of 32 straight wins by OES.

That opener came after St. Mary’s had been relegated to only indoor training due to poor air quality in the Rogue Valley. Since then, the Crusaders have been dominant in posting six shutouts and have had five games in which they allowed only one goal — despite the recent loss of senior defensive leader Grace Weber.

“We’ve been pretty tight about giving up goals and I especially like the trend the girls are setting right now in the state tournament here, keeping the other teams out of goal,” said Potter. “That’s a very nice accomplishment, and that tells me we’re coming along in our defensive organization.”

One area that has been a strength all season has been the Crusaders’ ability to put pressure on their opponents with a senior-led front line of Meghan Michels, Maddie Wheelock and Gabi Castillo. St. Mary’s has scored the second-most goals at their level with 95 — only Catlin Gabel’s 100 is higher — and spread things out well, with Wheelock’s 27 goals and the 25 by Michels leading the way.

The bulk of the St. Mary’s lineup has also been in this position before, and Potter hopes the experience combined with their aggressive style can create some havoc for the Aardvarks.

“We’ve got to call upon that experience and stay composed in a semifinal match,” said the coach.

Oregon Episcopal is certainly capable as well, outscoring teams 82-8 thus far with nine shutouts and five one-goal games.

Sophie Chen returns after scoring twice in last year’s semifinals — when the Crusaders lost their starting goalie in the first half — as does the corner kick goal-scoring combo of Olivia Giannini and Zoe Strothkamp. Other key OES players include Stephanie Finley, Emily Ford, Rachel Lowell and Joanna Cloutier.

“When they’re playing tough teams they’ll put ‘em in one after another,” Potter said of the Aardvarks’ scoring surges. “It’s like a feeding frenzy, I think, and that’s what they did to us last year. Once they scored it’s like they smelled blood and came at us, and they were good enough to do that.”

The St. Mary’s boys have been equally adept at scoring in bunches for head coach Eisa Tia Tutu, totaling 134 goals in only 17 games — the most at any level in Oregon — behind team leaders Luka Cvijanovic, Milan Bobek and Preston Jernigan.

The Crusaders (16-0-1) face a rematch with Catlin Gabel (12-1-4) from their season opener, which resulted in a 3-3 tie. St. Mary’s has also posted 13 shutouts, but will be minus a key contributor in senior Parker Lam, who was dealt a red card in Saturday’s 5-0 quarterfinals win and will have to serve a one-game suspension.

Catlin Gabel has been especially effective on the defensive end, posting 10 shutouts and five one-goal games, and will likely look to thwart St. Mary’s with a heavy defensive presence that aims to strike on counterattack opportunities.

Besides their 2003 state title, the Crusaders have finished as runner-up in 2002, 2010 (to Catlin Gabel), 2011 and 2013. Catlin Gabel won the 2016 crown and was runner-up last season.

For Flenner and company at Phoenix, Tuesday marks an opportunity to reach their third state final since 1995 (it also went in 2011) and set up a potential run at the program’s first-ever championship.

The Pirates (14-0-1) have posted four straight shutouts and 10 overall behind steady defensive play spearheaded by goalkeeper Moises Rivera and his back line of Joe Navas, Dan Martinez, Johnny Esquivel and Cornelio Carrera-Flores. The group has allowed one goal in five other games and never more than that.

Saturday’s hero, Victor Martinez, and senior Bryson Flenner spark an offense that has outscored teams 47-5 thus far.

North Marion (9-4-3) has been on a roll of late, winning three straight and seven of its last eight games to stand as the surprise team of the 4A playoffs. The Huskies used a 2-1 upset of No. 4 La Grande and 1-0 win over No. 12 Seaside to reach the semifinals.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

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