From left, Grace Kenney, Nicole Vahalik, Megan David, Kelley Farell, and Kiley Armstrong all hope to lead St. Ursula past defending state champ Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit.
As the 2011 girls high school soccer regular season closed, St. Ursula looked like anything but a team that would make a charge toward the state tournament semifinals.
But the 14-6-1 Arrows of fourth-year coach Chris Black regrouped, found their rhythm on the tournament trail, and will play perennial powerhouse and five-time state-champion Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit (20-0-2) in a Division II semifinal, 7 p.m. Wednesday at Tiffin Columbia.
At the midway point of the regular season, St. Ursula was on an emotional upswing after a big 2-1 win over Northview, which has since advanced to the Division I state semifinals.
The Arrows were 7-0-1 and riding high at that point, ranked No. 5 in the D-II state poll. Any momentum from beating Northview was soon lost as St. Ursula lost six of its final eight matches, including setbacks to Anthony Wayne, Perrysburg, Central Catholic, Columbus Watterson, rival Notre Dame, and Huber Heights Wayne.
Black's team basically needed a revival, and got one with the start of tourney play.
The Arrows opened with a 6-0 victory over Eastwood, topped previously unbeaten Maumee, 1-0. St. Ursula blanked Bowling Green 5-0 to win the district title, and followed with regional wins over Akron Hoban (1-0) and Bellville Clear Fork (5-2) to reach the second state semifinal in school history.
Why the sudden turnaround?
"A sense of urgency set in," Black said. "After the league was lost we changed our focus and our momentum to senior day, and then the tournament run. Psychologically, the team has come together to support each other. For the most part, everyone knows their roles, has embraced their roles, and they are really rooting for each other."
Leading the way offensively for St. Ursula has been senior forward Kelly Farell, with 18 goals and 13 assists as the Arrows have outscored opponents 66-20 this season.
Other top point producers have been senior midfielder Megan David (12 goals, 15 assists), junior center back Megan Rafac (10 goals, 6 assists), senior midfielder Kiley Armstrong (2 goals, 8 assists), and freshman midfielder Allie Farell (5 goals, 4 assists).
"We were kind of disjointed," said co-captain David of her team's pre-tourney skid. "We had some ups and downs during the season, but now we've all come together and realized that it's either done with, or we're going to keep going. We all want to keep going.
"Confidence is a key factor -- knowing that we can win games and compete with teams that are up to our level and past our level."
Senior goalkeeper Nicole Vahalik is allowing roughly one goal per game on the season, and has yielded just two in five tournament games.
Rounding out the regular starting lineup are center backs Grace Kenney, a senior, and Kyla Sofo, a junior, along with senior left back Laura Asbury, and junior right back Sara Mohamed. Senior Emily McNerney and freshman Nicole Silverhart have alternated at the other starting forward position in recent weeks.
"We've really come together as a team during the tournament run," said co-captain Kenney, one of 12 seniors on the roster. "We had a few tough losses there [at end of regular season], but we've really starting passing well and connecting well.
"Confidence is a big part but I really think it's the determination our team has. We know we're good, but we're also working harder to back up that [belief] we're good. Passing has been crucial in the tournament, and building up all the way from defense to the forwards."
This is the first year that the Ohio High School Athletic Association has expanded from two to three divisions for girls soccer and, until now, St. Ursula has taken advantage of playing below Division I for the first time.
Until now are the operative words. Walsh Jesuit is the top-ranked team in D-II, won the D-I state championship last season, and is ranked No. 2 nationally in the latest ESPN Rise Powerade Fab 50 poll.
The Warriors, who tied Solon (0-0) and Massillon Jackson (1-1), have allowed just five goals in 22 games this season. They have outscored their five tourney foes 27-0.
The 2004 Arrows (16-3-4) lost 1-0 in the D-I state semifinals against Walsh Jesuit, which had won its third state title that year. Other D-I titles came in 2000, 2001, 2006, and last year. The Warriors have only missed qualifying for the state final four twice in the past 13 seasons (2005 and 2008).
"When the brackets were built, this was the game I had circled," Black said. "I knew Walsh wouldn't lose before they got to the state semis. If you're going to win the state title you've got to beat the best anyway, so I'd rather we were the ones that do it than anyone else.
"If we played multiple times, they would win more than half of those meetings. But we don't have to beat them a bunch of times. We just have to beat them once."
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com 419-724-6461, or on Twitter @JungaBlade