Oct. 25, 2019

By Scott Williams

WAUSAU – It’s not every day the Wausau West boys soccer program gets to celebrate a conference championship. Heck. Not even every five years or so.

So family, friends and classmates made sure the players received the acknowledgment they deserved.

Championship posters and cupcakes were passed out to The Warriors prior to their regular season final against SPASH on Oct. 17.

In lieu of champagne, sparkling grape juice was handed out at practice the following day to spray all over one another as the celebration continued.

The list of well-wishers offering up congratulations never seems to end.

Why not? The Warriors had every reason to celebrate a 10-1-1 run through the Wisconsin Valley Conference and the program’s first title since 2005.

Thirteen years had passed since West won the Valley boys soccer championship. That one was shared with Marshfield.

This time the Warriors took care of business and made sure the program’s first title since 2005 was theirs alone. With it came a special source of pride.

“Winning the conference title meant everything to us,” West senior forward Kyle Durr said. “We really just wanted to enjoy the moment as a team because we knew that we were a very special group of young men, and that we had just accomplished something huge to many of us.”

All the ingredients required for a championship formula came together. West had the right mix of talent, veterans and youth, game plans, communication and tireless work on the pitch.

In addition, there was a level of unselfishness throughout the rosters, with seniors willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team.

Will Clancy moved from defense to a forward position to help the team. Durr raised the level of his game and piled up one-on-one highlights up front. Arath Medina moved from Atlanta and fit in seamlessly.

Kory Rieth and Will Brown were willing to accept whatever role was needed of them.

“Last year, the team had a disproportionate number of sophomores. We had four (conference) matches that went from a win to tie or draw to a loss late in matches,” said West coach John Czarnota who took over the program from his wife Erin Randall.

“That extra year of maturity and development, not only the physical parts, but the mental parts, makes a difference. There is a lack of grit that comes with being a younger team.”

Lessons learned.

It also doesn’t hurt to have arguably the premier keeper in the area in Noah Knezic.

The senior stalwart in goal sported a sparkling 0.95 goals against average in WVC action. His .866 save percentage was head and shoulders better than anyone else.

Perhaps more important was his commanding voice and presence as the last line of defense. Knezic continually organized the players in front of him and offered encouragement.

“There was a lot of belief in the individual talent we had on this team,” Czarnota said. “The challenge was dealing with the season challenges. It doesn’t take much for another team outdo you for a title.

“That’s where the grit factor and outwork factor comes in. We always felt on good day, we could play with anybody. The message we needed to get across was how on a bad day, we could still beat anybody.”

Message delivered and embraced.

Ironically, the foundation for the conference title was put in place by Czarnota’s wife who has been a source of stability in the program for 15 years.

No one had to tell the Warriors how difficult conference championships are to win. That holds even more true in the highly-competitive WVC soccer race.

“From the beginning of the season we knew that a title was possible, but we knew it wouldn’t come easy,” Durr said. “We knew that if we went and put the hard work in, that anything was possible.”

West put itself in a position to lock up the Valley title when it traveled to Marshfield on Oct. 15 for the grand opening of the Tigers new soccer complex.

Marshfield had dealt the Warriors their lone WVC loss in an earlier meeting. Thoughts of delaying any celebration was front and center for the Tigers.

West would have to earn the championship.

To make matters even tougher, Mother Nature was up to her cruel tricks. The teams were greeted by strong winds, chilly temps and a steady rain.

“Our guys were super excited and aware last time we won the conference championship was 2005,” Czarnota said.

As if all those circumstances weren’t tough enough, Knezic, who was in concussion protocol with a head injury suffered against Bay Port on Oct. 12, was unavailable.

Tryouts were held at practice. Nicholas Raasch and David DeLoye were selected to try to fill the cleats of Knezic.

Things were looking as bleak as the weather for the Warriors. Marshfield rose the wind at its back to a 2-0 halftime lead.

“One of the most valuable players on the field is a goalkeeper. The challenge mentally was can we do this without Noah,” the Warriors coach said. “The guys were like, ‘Let’s win this for Noah.’

“I talked to the team at halftime and told them we can turn it around with the weather at their backs, but it would take some work,” Czarnota said.

West wasted no time finding its championship mojo.

Luis Cortes got the Warriors on the scoreboard just 2 minutes into the second half. Durr would get them back to even 20 minutes later.

When Raasch found the back of the net with just under three minutes left in regulation after moving to his more accustomed midfield position, West finally had the lead.

A short time later, the Warriors had the win and the long drought between Valley titles was over.

“That match was a very good example of the mental strength and composure of our team, and our willingness to keep pushing through,” Durr said. “As the game went on, we knew what we could do, and we didn’t stop until we got that title-clinching win.”

The Warriors figure why stop at a conference championship? They want more hardware this season.

The program’s first trip to the WIAA state tournament since 2003, and only the fourth state appearance overall, has a nice ring.

West got the journey off on the right foot with an 5-2 dismantling of Superior in the Division 1 regional opener Oct. 22 to improve to 15-1-2.

Now Hudson stands in its way in the regional final Saturday. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. in Hudson.

No matter how the postseason unfolds, the Warriors can take comfort in the knowledge they will always be remembered as the 2019 Wisconsin Valley Conference champions.

“For the seniors, we were just thrilled that we were able to come out and get this done for our final year of high school,” Durr said. “The rest of the team was just as excited. It meant a lot to them to be able to win, and now they have a conference title to defend.”