This time, the Neenah girls’ soccer team is heading down to the WIAA state tournament to take care of business.
The Rockets were one of the surprise entries of the Division 1 field last season, but after qualifying a second consecutive time, they know they belong.
Neenah (17-4-1) plays Brookfield Central (14-5-3) in a D1 quarterfinal matchup at noon Thursday at Uihlein Soccer Park in Milwaukee.
“Last year, we didn’t even think we would make it down to state,” senior goalkeeper Brooke Hiltunen said. “And this year we just battled through everything and tried to get there. We feel like this year is a lot different because we actually earned our spot there.”
To return to state, the Rockets knocked off Fond du Lac 3-1 in the sectional semifinal and Appleton North 1-0 in the sectional final.
The win over the Lightning, the Rockets’ second of the season against North, solidified the their standing as one of the top teams in the state.
“They’re playing a high level,” Neenah coach Jeff Zehren said. “From Day 1, starting with (a win over) Arrowhead at Uihlein, what they’ve shown me is the mental toughness and hard worth ethic.”
That work ethic helped Neenah traverse a shaky portion of its season that saw the Rockets register tough 1-0 losses to Kenosha Tremper, Brookfield Central and Kimberly and a 3-1 loss to Waukesha West.
Neenah has been on a roll since the Waukesha West loss, however, rattling off 11 consecutive wins while outscoring its opponents 54-3.
“Our thought process here is the same as it was throughout the season. We played some tough nonconference teams and that was our goal,” Zehren said. “Our record might not show it, but it prepares us for down the road. I think we’re peaking and playing very well right now.”
Neenah, which shared the FVA title with Kimberly and Appleton North, has tailored its offense a bit in the second half of the season, with junior forward Rylee Engelland becoming more of a focal point.
“It’s really exciting going back a second time,” Neenah senior midfielder Amy Rutten said. “It’s pretty hard to get there at least once and we’ve done it a second time.
“We’ve really been working on our offense with Rylee up top and trying to get it to her.”
Englland leads the Rockets in total points (14 goals, eight assists), with Kendra Bombinski (12 goals, five assists) and Molly McGillis (six goals, four assists) also top scorers.
Hiltunen has been superb at keeper and has a 0.32 goals averaged against percentage, the second-lowest percentage of the starting goalies in the D1 field.
Hiltunen missed last season’s state tournament with an injury but should be ready to go on Thursday.
“(I’m) still kind of battling injuries and whatnot but it’s an awesome feeling just to make it down to state,” Hiltunen said. “This year, I think we have a good chance of going farther if we play our game.”
Brookfield Central is a tough draw . The Lancers beat the Rockets on a penalty kick earlier in the season, but Zehren said the two teams were very close in overall shot attempts.
“I told the girls, ‘You know what? This is the first round and nothing is going to get any easier,’ ” he said. “Our game against Appleton North was basically a state game and we were fortunate to get through. We played that type of competition (all year) and we’re excited.”
Hiltunen leads a group of eight seniors who want to their season to end on championship Saturday.
“It’s always in the back of our minds,” she said. “But we just know that if we go out there and play like how we should and leave everything on the field, then in the end you should be happy with your performance.”
— Ricardo Arguello: 920-993-1000, ext. 558, or email@example.com; On Twitter @PCRicardo