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Shootout decides sectional winner after scoreless final

Only 371 days after the Medford boys soccer team was eliminated from the WIAA tournament in a penalty- kick shootout on Raider Field’s west end, the Raiders found themselves in another all-or-nothing shootout Saturday evening.

The stakes were even higher this time with a state berth on the line and, this time, the Raiders came through.

What started as a five-round shootout after Medford and Rice Lake officially played to a 0-0 tie extended all the way to nine rounds with both teams going through emotional ups and downs before Medford junior Kale Klussendorf finally buried a shot inside the right post, giving the Raiders a 6-5 win in the shootout and sent them to their first-ever state appearance.

Medford (10-3-1) is part of a four-team, one-day WIAA Division 2 state tournament that will take place Saturday at Marshfield High School’s Kenneth and Ardyce Heiting Community Stadium, starting with the Raiders’ 11 a.m. semifinal against the Manitowoc Roncalli-Two Rivers co-op. Sauk Prairie and Delavan-Darien play at 2 p.m. and the championship is scheduled for 7 p.m.

“It’s awesome,” Klussendorf said. “Who would’ve thought we’d be going to state?”

For a brief moment, it didn’t look like Medford was going when Rice Lake’s Zach Holmstrom denied Gage Neubauer’s attempt in the seventh round of the shootout, seemingly giving the Warriors a 5-4 win. But Holmstrom was flagged by the officials for leaving his line early and Neubauer got a re-kick. He went to the right corner and made his shot to tie the shootout at 5-5.

Rice Lake’s Caleb Johnson put one too high and Medford’s Gabe Felix pulled his shot left in the eighth round. Raider goal keeper Brady Hupf dove to his right to stop Braydon Ahlberg’s shot in the ninth round and Klussendorf, who said his goal was just to kick it hard, confidently made his shot to end it and set off the celebration.

“Coach said it was me,” Klussendorf said. “I walked up, shook the mullet out. I was waving the stands on. I went up and just tapped it in. As soon as I touched it I knew it was going in and I was heading back into the team.”

“Kale concerns me, but I also have the utmost faith in Kale to make that decision to take pressure on and put it in the back of the net,” Medford head coach Nate Bilodeau said. Bilodeau went into the shootout prepared with his list of five shooters, but had to make decisions on the fly after that with each round. “What concerns me about Kale is that balance between power and accuracy. He leans more toward that power side, which is OK as long as he can be accurate. Tonight he showed up big. He put it in the back of the net, and that was it.”

“I couldn’t watch,” sophomore co-captain Zach Rudolph said of the shootout’s drama. “I was standing behind people just listening. When that last goal went in, I just sat down and took it all in. I couldn’t do anything about it. I was overcome with emotion there.”

He wasn’t the only one. His fellow cocaptain, senior Owen Wipf, went back and forth between tears and smiles.

“I never imagined this,” Wipf said. “I’m speechless. We deserve it. We’ve worked so hard to get here. Man, it’s crazy. It’s just insane. I’m just overwhelmed.”

“We’ve finally made it to state,” Hupf said. “One of the Medford teams finally made it to state. It’s between the happiest time in my life and the saddest at the same time. I’m just happy to keep the senior year going and we get another game.”

Hupf’s performance in the shootout was remarkable as he stopped four of Rice Lake’s nine kicks. It was a much happier result than last year, when Fox Valley Lutheran connected on all four of its shots to beat Medford 4-1 in the shootout following a wild WIAA Division 3 regional final.

“When it started I was pretty nervous,” Hupf said. “Last year’s obviously didn’t go too well. I was just kind of thinking about last year and that we have to have redemption. When I blocked that first kick and then the third kick or whatever, I knew we were going to have a real good chance of going. (Rice Lake) is a really good team. I know they have a really good goalie. I knew we’d have to have some really good shots to get there, but our teammates did it. It took a little longer than I might have thought. But we made it.”

“Hat’s off to Brady. Phenomenal,” Bilodeau said. “Just a heck of a season for Brady. Best I’ve ever seen him play. He made a couple of key saves tonight obviously on the PKs. He came through huge for the team.”

“Once Brady made that first save, I was like, ‘there’s no way we’re losing this,’” Wipf said. “I just trust him so much. He’s our backbone on our defense. He’s a brick wall.”

Medford took a 1-0 lead in the shootout when Rice Lake’s Kolbjorn Ahlberg pulled his shot left and Raider Aaron Schield hit the left corner. Edgar Sanchez scored going to the right for Rice Lake, while Colton Gowey connected going to the upper left corner for a 2-1 lead.

Hupf got the save on Rice Lake’s Jake Engebritson, while Wipf’s shot to the left was denied by Holmstrom in round three. Ethan Peterson scored going to the right, while Medford’s Ty Baker went left to score for a 3-2 after four rounds. Forest Grenier went to his left to score to start round five, then Hupf was given the chance to win it himself, but Holmstrom stopped his kick, sending the shootout to sudden death.

“The most challenging part was OK, these five are done, then it was rapid fire,” Bilodeau said. “Who’s next? Who’s next? Who’s next? You can’t prepare for that. There’s nothing to emphasize that level of stress from a coach’s perspective and then from a player’s perspective that amount of responsibility. The pressure is just huge. I was saying I get to go to bed tonight knowing I made the right decision because we won. If we lost, I would have to try to sleep tonight wondering what I could have done differently.”

After Holmstrom scored to help himself in round six, Bilodeau turned to junior Quinton Tlusty, who buried his shot into the left corner to tie it at 4-4.

“Q didn’t play a minute in the game,” Bilodeau said. “We never had the opportunity to get him on the pitch. But he excels at penalty kicks. ‘Q you’re up, don’t miss.’ And he went up there and played one perfectly side net to the left. It’s almost unsavable. He did great. That was huge for the team. Huge confidence boost.”

Then came the seventh-round roller coaster. Hupf made a save on Aiden Putnam but he was flagged for leaving his line early. Putnum took advantage and scored on the re-kick. Then Holmstrom was flagged for the same call on Neubauer, which Rice Lake didn’t realize until after the Warriors had started celebrating what they thought was a victory.

“Last year, we did get beat pretty bad in (the shootout),” Rudolph said. “It was heartbreaking, but this year our boys wanted redemption and I had 100% confi dence. I knew Schield was putting that first one in. Brady I knew was going to make a few saves, so I had a good feeling we were going to win this one. It was our year, we knew what we had to do here.”

110 scoreless minutes

As for the game itself, the sectional final was billed as a battle between two defensive-minded teams and that’s how it played out for 90 minutes of regulation and two 10-minute overtime periods.

“At halftime, coach Chris (Reardon) and I both said, ‘I think one goal is going to decide this game even if it gets to that point,’” Bilodeau said. “It was a possession game. Both teams possess the ball so well. I almost feel like we’re two identical teams. Their style of play, the way they move the ball, the way they possess the ball pretty much mirrors our concept and our philosophy of how we play, which is really hard. You feel like you’re playing against yourself. How do you beat yourself ? It was a really good game for the boys to slow down, possess the ball more, understand that it doesn’t always have to be go, go, go. Find the right opportunities, make good passes. It doesn’t have to be rushed, don’t force anything.”

Momentum during the game seemed fleeting. Whenever one team started to feel like it was possessing the ball more and getting better scoring opportunities, the other team found a way to reverse things to their side.

But neither defense caved. The game officially goes down as Medford’s seventh straight shutout. The Raiders have allowed just 11 goals in 14 games.

“We knew right from the beginning that it was going to be a tough game,” senior defender Ty Baker said. “We were watching a little film on them. We knew they were a one-seed for a reason.”

“I think we came in a little excited, a little nervous,” Hupf said. “Roughly 15 minutes went by before we settled down and got into our game. We didn’t get a goal, but we also didn’t let them have one. They didn’t have much offensive push. If they did, we held them. We kept them under control and didn’t get too nervous and just kept it 0-0. That’s all we needed.”

Medford’s best first-half flurry came in the final five minutes. The Raiders got two good shots off a Schield corner kick. One was deflected and the other saved. At 42:45, Gowey made a push up the right sideline and centered to Neubauer whose high shot was snatched by Holmstrom right at the goal line. At 43:50, the Raiders again pressured hard but just couldn’t get a hard shot on net.

Medford pressured hard just over the 59-minute mark with Neubauer getting the best shot, but he couldn’t quite get the ball to settle for a clean shot. Klussendorf put a tricky shot on goal at 71:45 that Holmstrom saved and his centering pass to Neubauer at 76:30 was barely broken up. Neubauer was legally tackled in the box in the first overtime, denying a scoring chance. Wipf nearly tucked one inside the opposite post on a tricky shot from the left side of the formation at the 6:00 mark of the first overtime. Engebritson had a shot for Rice Lake with 35 seconds left in the second overtime after stealing a Medford pass. His shot sailed high.

“That’s what it should be,” Bilodeau said. “It should come down to these close games. When state’s on the line like that, you’ve got a one and a two seed going at it. It’s how it should be.”

“I thought this was one of our best games,” Wipf said. “I thought we possessed the ball really well. I thought our defense was really solid. And you know, penalty kicks, those were nerve wracking, but I think we were ready. We were prepared and we won.”

Quinton Tlusty reacts after he beats Rice Lake goal keeper Zach Holmstrom and keeps the Raiders alive in the sixth round of Saturday’s shootout.MATT FREY/THE STAR NEWS

Sam Blair (22), Ethan Swiantek, Gabe Felix, Silas Wipf and Colton Gowey watch as the officials call Rice Lake’s keeper for leaving his line early, keeping Medford’s shootout hopes alive. Gage Neubauer scored on the re-kick to tie the shootout at 5-5.