They weren’t supposed to get this far. And they certainly weren’t supposed to get to the big dance.
But Milwaukee and Uihlein Soccer Park is where Neenah girls’ soccer team will be heading after the Rockets pulled off its second consecutive upset in as many games, this time knocking off third-ranked Appleton North in a shootout on Saturday in a WIAA Division 1 sectional final at Neenah High School.
The unheralded Rockets advanced after beating the Lightning in penalty kicks 4-2 after the game ended in a scoreless tie after two overtimes. Their victory came after a furious rally to knock off Stevens Point 3-2 in double overtime in the sectional semifinal on Thursday.
Neenah (14-6-2) plays upstart Grafton in a WIAA Division 1 state quarterfinal at 7 p.m. this upcoming Thursday.
“That’s the key,” Neenah coach Jeff Zehren said. “You peak at the right at time and are playing well at the time. You can do well during the season, but it comes down to the end and, hopefully, you’re peaking.
“One of the things we said when we left the gym this morning over at the high school is that, ‘Hey, this is the way we like it. We’re flying under the radar.’ We’re not even supposed to be here. We’re going to come out here and do everything that you can like we’ve done in the past and we’ll see what happens.”
The game moved to penalty kicks after the teams had battled to a defensive standstill after 100 minutes in sunny and warm conditions, including two overtimes.
Neenah converted on its first four penalty kicks, with Rylee Engelland, Mallory Washington, Emily Skaer and Liz Darkow scoring.
Appleton North’s Meg Riebau and Sami Lange converted for the Lightning, but Neenah goalie Brooke Hiltunen was able to deflect the Lightning’s first and fourth penalty kick attempts to get the Rockets the victory.
“She really had a nice save in regulation with that penalty kick,” Zehren said. “I said in the huddle before we started our (penalty) kicks that, ‘I’m not goint to be mad at Brooke or be mad at any five of my shooters if you miss. Let’s just go out there and have fun. If we win, we win and if we lose, you did everything you could.’ And, hopefully, that took a little pressure off of them. It was amazing.”
The game showcased both team’s defenses as well as their physicality. The further the game advanced, however, the more confidence Neenah seemed to gain against the powerful Lightning, which had demolished its three previous playoff opponents by a combined score of 21-0.
The Rockets lost to Appleton North 2-1 in Fox Valley Association play.
“We just stuck together as a team and as a family,” Neenah defender Kendra Bombinski said. “We knew that we were in it together and we just came out as strong as we could and finished it.”
It was a disappointing end to the season for Appleton North (19-1-2), the defending Division 1 state champions.
“I just (told them) that one game doesn’t define a team,” Appleton North coach John Wuebben said. “We had a great season and it’s a great group of girls both athletically and personality-wise. It hurts because it matters but, in the big picture, there are things that are a lot more important that they got out of this season.”
The Rockets know they have their work cut out for them against Grafton, which upset top-seeded Cedarburg to advance.
“We are going to have to take time to practice and get everything back together,” Bombinski said. “We’re going to just go 100 percent and see what we can do.”
NEENAH 0 0 0 0 — 0
NORTH 0 0 0 0 — 0
Shots on goal: AN 9, N 7. Saves: Brooke Hiltunen N 8, Maddy French AN 7