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Uknighted effort pushes Union back into State tournament

June 4, 2019
CJ Eilers - Editor ( , Dysart Reporter

Megan Carty and her sister Allie were sophomores when Union advanced to the State Girls Soccer Tournament in 2017 on their way to ending their season in the 2A Finals against Lewis Central, falling 2-1. Competing in the tournament is every player's goal, and Carty saw why firsthand as an underclassmen.

"The State tournament in 2017 was definitely a new experience for Allie and I because it was our first time going to State," Carty said. "Our freshman year didn't go the way we wanted. I remember we were determined that next year to go. It ended up being a great experience beating Waverly, making a huge comeback in our second game and then going to the finals. The energy and positivity there was an amazing feeling."

The potential to compete again at Cownie Soccer Complex in Des Moines was there as the Knights returned a young core of players and Carty found herself starting on defense. Despite some notable wins in 2018, injuries plagued Union throughout and several early and mid-season games fell apart as a result. Healthy again in time for Regional play, the Knights advanced to the regional finals only to run into a talented Waverly-Shell Rock team on their turf, ending their season 5-1.

Article Photos

The 2019 Union soccer team with their banner and ticket to the State Girls Soccer Tournament beginning on Thursday.

"Last year was tough to handle because we all knew we had the potential to make it, yet we drew a tough matchup because of several games we shouldn't have lost," Carty said. "We've taken those thoughts from last season and transferred them into this season, saying we had to take every game as a State-qualifying game because they all matter. If we didn't have that matchup against Waverly, we could have experienced State again."

As Carty's senior year began, she and her teammates had an ultimate goal in mind: return to State and compete for another finals appearance. Experience was now the team's number one strength between the two upper classes returning for the 2019 season.

"This year, I feel everyone who went in 2017 is far more experienced," junior midfielder Lexi Wagner said. "We were a pretty young team my freshman year. With that experience in hand, we felt we could do well in the regular season."

The Knights moved down to Class 1A in 2019, though their regular season schedule remained the same. Coach Hunter Zempel knew there were talented local teams in 1A, including Denver and Columbus Catholic. Nothing was going to be easier for Union, especially as a familiar problem arose once again in 2019.

"Going into this season, we had aspirations of being back at the State tournament," coach Hunter Zempel said. "We played well throughout the season and then the injury bug hit us. People stepped up and performed and finally we are getting everyone healthy to show our potential."

Union emerged from the regular season 11-3, with their final two games cancelled due to weather. Of those three losses, two were against 2A powerhouses in Waverly-Shell Rock and ADM, the final being Clear Creek-Amana with a roster depleted by injury and athletes competing in the State Track Meet. Yet through the highs and lows of the season, the Knights learned who they were this season as they shed their identity from 2018 and came through with the same attention to speed and tough defense with multiple playmakers and scorers.

"This team is different from previous years with the threat of goals coming from different players," Zempel said. "We've had great players here-Courtney Powell, Emma Rottinghaus-yet this lineup has a variety scorers to make it challenging for the opponents. Defensively, we have a senior backline along with Jazz proving they are solid."

Those attributes led a restored and confident Union squad through Regional play, dominating Benton Community 10-0 and ending Vinton-Shellsburg's season 6-1 after a lightning delay. One obstacle now remained in the way of Union returning to State for the third time in five seasons: a familiar opponent in Columbus Catholic in the regional final on Monday, June 3. The Knights had prevailed over the Sailors 2-1 early in the season in La Porte, albeit in a fashion the coaching staff and the players were unhappy with. Passing suffered and finishing was untimely for a team dependent on speed and precise ball movement to "play their game."

"We knew what we had to fix from the last game," junior midfielder Riley Rosauer said. "We had to pass the ball better, get better touches and finish at the end. Last time, we missed the ball or kicked it straight to the goalie."

Zempel had his players watched film from the first meeting to prepare them for their regional final. Knowing opportunities would be limited by a talented team in Columbus, the Knights would have to score whenever the chance arose. After several rushed shot attempts in the opening 15 minutes of the game, Wagner got the assist from Rosauer for an open shot to get the Knights on the board. Rosauer herself would get in on the action with back-to-back goals off the feed from Wagner and Allie Carty. Wagner would find the side of the net to put Union up 4-0 before the halftime buzzer.

"Riley and Lexi have a great understanding of each other," Zempel said. "They've been playing together for a longtime, both are super-talented players and combining with each other was what we needed all season."

Coming out of halftime, the Sailors clamped down on defense to prevent several scoring attempts by the midfield and Union's wing players. Scoring chances came for Columbus, yet the defense of Carty, Karly Jans and Tori Hadachek took the ball back and Jasmyn Bush put together seven saves on the evening. Allie Carty got the lone score of the second half on the board via a pass from Kylee Peterson.

"We needed to remember to use our brains, get smart and not get too committed offensively to maintain the shutout," Zempel said.

For less than 20 minutes, the Union defense continued to maintain the shutout even as scoring dried up for the Knights. Their biggest crowd of the year watched excitedly as the clock slowly wound down until the final whistle sounded. Union had achieved their goal of punching their ticket back to State and the players immediately celebrated and embraced one another as cheers erupted from their family, friends and classmates in the stands.

"I'm so excited, tears are flowing," Rosauer said. "All of this support from our family, friends, coaches has made this team what it is right now. We were so determined to win this game."

As the moment settles in for Wagner, she enjoys pictures with the State banner among the very people that helped make this possible.

"This team is basically my family because we do everything as a team, whether it be losing or winning together," Wagner said. "We've improved as a team and that's what helped us tonight."

Pictures continued for a while afterwards before the coaching staff was finally able to corral their excited players for a short meeting. Among the hundreds of photos taken are the six seniors-the Cartys, Hadachek, Jans, Mackenna Hatch and Chloe Heitmann-for one last time on the field.

"It's a little sad to think this is my last time playing on this field, but at the same time I'm happy I get to keep going with my teammates," Carty said. "Many teams this last week played their final home game and that is their last game of the season. I'm just glad we get to continue playing against some great teams in the state tournament."

One of those great teams will be the 18-0 Gilbert Tigers, who defeated Grundy Center/Gladbrook-Reinbeck to advance as a four seed. Union will be slotted against them as a fifth seed on Thursday, June 6 at 11:15 a.m. on Field 8 of the Cownie Soccer Complex in Des Moines. Though their ultimate goal of reaching the finals is heavy on several athletes' minds, they also know it's not quite that simple with a tough opponent in their way first.

"We want to keep a positive mentality going into State," Wagner said. "We want to get to the Finals, but we have to take this game by game."

That just happens to be the very lesson Zempel has preached all season long.

"You can't get to the Finals if you lose the first game," Zempel said. "We'll have to play to our potential, put in the work the next couple of days. I expect us to have our best effort and see where they take us. We believe can do some damage down in Des Moines, and I'm looking forward to the challenge."

As Rosauer indeed fought back tears of excitement, the team captain also knows her team's performance will have to be replicated and even improved to stand up against the best Iowa has to offer in Class 1A.

"We have to continue playing like we did tonight," Rosauer said. "The way we played today, we can beat anyone. Our talent is so spread out and we can all take on the challenge together as a team rather than just rely on one person."

The Dysart Reporter will have coverage of the Thursday matchup with Gilbert. Follow Editor CJ Eilers on Twitter (@cjeilers) for game updates. A final score will be posted on the Dysart Reporter Facebook page. For photos of the Columbus game, please check out Flickr via the Facebook page.



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