October 24, 2013
Duluth News Tribune
Denfeld braces for defending state champ
By Louie St. George III
Looking to confound a high school athlete? Bring up the movie “Hoosiers.”
The classic story of a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that shocks the world by upsetting a heavily favored big-city foe in the state championship game predates today’s teenagers — at least those on the Duluth Denfeld high school girls soccer team that were asked about the film before practice Wednesday.
Nonetheless, Denfeld coach Ron Weber could do worse than steal a page from Gene Hackman’s fictional playbook. Upon arriving in Indianapolis for the championship game with his wide-eyed Hickory High players, Hackman — as coach Norman Dale — reveals a measuring tape, which he uses to show his team that, despite the bigger stage, the game isn’t played any differently. The basket is still 10 feet off the ground and the free-throw line is still 15 feet from the hoop.
Tonight, Weber will lead his Hunters into a Minnesota Class A state tournament quarterfinal against vaunted Benilde-St. Margaret’s. The defending champion Red Knights (15-3-1) boast a resume as impressive as it is long.
“They’re absolutely scary,” Weber said. “They’ve scored (104) goals this year and only conceded 10. They have Ms. Soccer as their No. 1 player, and she’s been All-State for the last four years. They were ranked No. 1 in the coaches’ poll all season. There are so many things on paper that make them look like an unbeatable team, but the field is still the same, the game is still the same. When you get out there, whoever executes better has a chance to win.”
Voted Ms. Soccer in Class A on Sunday, senior Kelly Pannek has tallied 25 goals and 19 assists this season en route to becoming the school’s second-leading career scorer. Teammate Aleksa Tataryn, a sophomore, is just as lethal with 18 goals and 24 assists.
Trying to find a weakness with the Red Knights? Keep looking. Their offense, which averages 5.47 goals per game, is explosive. Conversely, they allow a goal about once every other game. They run like the wind and ooze with big-game experience after appearing in each of the past four state tournaments.
Among common opponents, Benilde-St. Margaret’s roughed up Cloquet-Carlton 7-0 in mid-September, while Denfeld played the Lumberjacks to a 1-1 tie in early October. Weber said Cloquet coaches told him it was like a meteor shower, with Red Knights flashing all over the field.
Today’s game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. at St. Louis Park High School. And despite all the accolades, the unranked Hunters (13-3-3) aren’t backing down from the No. 2 seed.
“Stats-wise, they have really good stats, so it’s hard not to be a little intimidated,” Denfeld’s Emily Fleissner said. “But at the same time we are going to go down there and we’re going to give it our best. We’re going to have to try to play our game, and we’ll have a shot at it.”
“I don’t think anyone’s scared — I think it’s a challenge,” Fleissner’s teammate, Paige Kessler, said. “I don’t think there’s anyone on our team that’s scared to play. None of them think we can’t do it.”
Fleissner (9 goals, 9 assists, 18 points) and Kessler (11-4—15), along with fellow senior Taylor Olson (9-9—18), provide the bulk of the scoring for an offense that is dependable if not dazzling. The Section 7A champs are better known for their defense, having allowed 0.84 goals per game this season. Senior goalkeeper Megan Lazzaro has seven shutouts.
Weber said Denfeld embraced its identity in the middle of the season when the Hunters moved a fourth player back to bolster their defense. They will see if that pack-it-in strategy pays off tonight as they make their second state tournament appearance.
If it does, a “Hoosiers”-like ending could be in store — even if none of the Hunters know who Jimmy Chitwood is.
“Any team is beatable on any day,” Fleissner said.