By Steve Hill

May 16, 2019

Stevens Point — As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the sight of SPASH’s leading scorer standing on the sideline, hoping to get back on the field, was evidence of how much difference a year makes.

Abby Gemza could only watch as 6th-ranked D.C. Everest (16-1-1, 10-0 Wisconsin Valley Conference) likely cemented its sixth conference championship in seven years on Thursday, beating the Panthers 4-1.

Although SPASH is still technically the defending champion for a few more days and perhaps as long as a week — the Evergreens still have two games remaining with a game-and-a-half lead over second-place Wisconsin Rapids (9-3-2, 8-1-1 WVC) — the engraving is practically on the winner’s plaque, and it looks like it will say “D.C. Everest.”

Even with a road game on Tuesday against Rapids and a home game against sixth-place Merrill on Thursday, it’s hard to imagine the smoothly running Everest machine faltering enough with the title almost in its grasp, especially for those seeing how easily the Evergreens handled a tenacious and talented but shorthanded Panther squad.

Last season, SPASH played three games at Everest, tying the first and winning the last two.  It returned six all-conference players, including most of its scoring punch and a solid defensive core. But graduation took a couple of key starters and several important reserves, and with a roster of only 15 players for most of the year, the Panthers (8-9-0, 5-5-0) struggled more than anticipated in a talented and tough WVC.

It had taken a yellow card to remove Gemza, a second-team all-state player in 2018, from the field in the final minutes of the physical and highly competitive game. But even with a 55th-minute goal that cut the Everest lead to 3-1, there was no solace for the senior as she watched Everest complete a regular-season sweep of the Panthers, emphatically marking its probable return to the WVC throne.

“It was not fun not being able to help our team,” Gemza said of the game’s end. “I think we gave it a good fight, but you’ve got to put it in the net, and that’s on all of us.”

Although the Panthers made a game of it in the first half, battling well for possession and getting a small number of good scoring opportunities, the Evergreens were able to take a 2-0 halftime lead on goals by Alanna Schneck in the 23rd minute and Maddie Simpson in the 41st.

“I think the team came out really strong. I think we all had really positive attitudes and that really lifted each other up,” Schneck said.

Simpson, who came into the game tied with Gemza for the conference’s scoring lead at 33 points (both had 15 goals and 3 assists), also got an assist on Schneck’s goal to come out of the game with a one-point lead over Gemza.

Meghan Heil got an assist on Simpson’s goal and would add one of her own off an Elle Hersperger assist at the 54:01 mark, making it 3-0 for Everest.

Gemza got her goal less than a minute later and SPASH continued to battle hard for the remainder of the half, but Everest wrapped it up with a 79th-minute goal by Maria Esker off a Sarah Lorge assist.

Although Gemza, mostly a midfielder, has been placed all over the field under head coach Allie Rogesheske and played defense against the Evergreens in last year’s wins, she was moved forward for Thursday’s contest.

Everest coach Lucas Kollross said, “Once we found out they were going to come at us with Abby up top, we knew it was going to be whoever could score the most goals.  We wanted to keep attacking — we never got into much of a defensive shape because we wanted to go at them, and we did that.”

Rogesheske said after the game, “We did some good things, but we had a few mental lapses that we were punished for, and against a good team that’s what’s going to happen.”

She talked to her team about taking what it could from the loss as it moves into the final week of WVC and prepares for the playoffs, which will begin after Memorial Day for the Panthers.

SPASH Senior defender Julia Moder found some positive signs despite the loss.

“We definitely had a lot more offensive opportunities than we’ve been having. We’ve been moving the ball a lot quicker and working on moving the ball directly to our three forwards,” Moder said.

She added that despite giving up four goals, the Panthers have also shown defensive improvement that was evident even against the powerful Everest attack, which has averaged 6.55 goals per WVC contest.

“We definitely take stuff like this and if we’re mad or frustrated, we take that energy and we move forward,” Moder said. “And it’s one game at a time.”

On the other side of the field, the Evergreens were also thinking about stepwise goals, starting with a conference title and then a playoff run, senior defender Keta Oettinger said.

“I think we’re looking pretty good going forward. We’ve been playing pretty well, pretty cohesively as a team,” Oettinger said. “I think we keep getting better each game, so I’m excited to see what the future has for us.”