McLean Bennett Column: Local soccer fans have had plenty to cheer for

McLean Bennett Column: Local soccer fans have had plenty to cheer for

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McLean Bennett Column: Local soccer fans have had plenty to cheer for

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Sports fans in and around Sheboygan County have gotten a front-row seat to some of Wisconsin’s best girls soccer talent over the last 15 years or so.

Area schools, including Oostburg and Plymouth — and out-of-county-but-still-technically-locals New Holstein and Ozaukee — have advanced to the state tournament in all but three years since 1999, producing a remarkable run that’s seen local programs hoist four state titles in the last decade and a half.

“I think soccer just continues to grow and expand,” Ozaukee coach Eric Liebergen said. “The skill set that our kids are getting at a younger age have allowed the girls to pick it up much sooner.”

Ozaukee, located just a few miles south of the county border in Fredonia, has consistently proved the cream of the crop. The Warriors are playing in their sixth-ever — and their sixth in 11 years — state tournament today. Ozaukee became the belle of the soccer ball in the mid-2000s, when the Warriors managed a nearly unprecedented run of five straight tournament bids between 2003 and ’07. The team won titles in 2003, ’05 and ’06.

Few teams in the state have produced such consistent success — Catholic Memorial is playing in its eighth straight state tournament this year, while Waukesha West is making its seventh consecutive appearance. Only a few other teams have strung together runs of five or six straight tournament appearances, putting Ozaukee in distinguished company.

New Holstein — another just-out-of-the-county team — helped kickstart the area’s run of tournament appearances back in 1999, becoming the first area team to advance to State and sparking the near-unabated firestorm of soccer success that’s followed ever since. The Huskies returned to undisputed dominant form a few years ago, when they earned tourney berths in three of four years between 2008 and 2011. They won a title in 2010.

Plymouth and Oostburg, meanwhile, made lone appearances in 2000 and 2012, respectively. The Flying Dutchmen looked poised to make a second consecutive appearance this year, going through much of the regular season ranked among the top five teams in Division 3 before earning a No. 2 seed in their playoff bracket. Central Lakeshore Conference foe Cedar Grove-Belgium dashed Oostburg’s State hopes in a sectional semifinal shootout.

In fact, the Central Lakeshore — the home of both Oostburg and Ozaukee — has shaped up as a particularly competitive girls soccer league of late. Aside from the Warriors’ and Dutchmen’s combined seven state tournament appearances in just the last 11 years, the conference has produced plenty of parity among its other competitive programs, resulting in some rousing late-season drama.

Last year, for instance, Howards Grove earned the conference crown and secured a No. 1 seed in its postseason bracket. It was Oostburg, though — a program that flashed brilliantly in the second half of the season despite a tied-for-fourth-place finish in the CLC standings — which buzzed all the way to State.

And despite finishing third in the conference standings this spring, Cedar Grove mustered a shootout win over co-conference champion Oostburg in the playoffs anyway, and came within a game of going to the state tournament before Ozaukee knocked the team out in a sectional final last week.

Liebergen said a tendency to pack a number of CLC teams into the same postseason sectional bracket has increased the chances a local team will make it to State. But he said there’s been a definite increase in talent and competition in the conference, pointing specifically to Cedar Grove, Oostburg and his own Ozaukee team — all of which were listed in Division 3 state rankings at points of the regular season — as examples of the swagger the conference has earned.

“I think the word has gotten out, and the level of respect is there and other conferences are taking notice,” Liebergen said. “… You go to a tournament and you’re playing some other D2 schools, some D1 schools, and your scores hold up, that brings credibility to your conference.”

The Warriors play Lake Country Lutheran/University Lake/Trinity Academy in a state semifinal today, and a win would advance them to Saturday’s championship game at Milwaukee’s Uihlein Soccer Park. Which means fans in and around Sheboygan County can expect — at least for another day or two — to keep what they’ve already been treated to for well over a decade: a front-row seat to some of the state’s best girls soccer talent.

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McLean Bennett Column: Local soccer fans have had plenty to cheer for
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