Three Novembers ago, Sarah Case and Kira Kallem were freshmen who made the trip to the high school girls soccer final four as fans to see Columbia River win the Class 3A state championship.
Seniors now, this week they are returning to the final stage of the state tournament hoping to experience a championship as players.
Columbia River takes an unbeaten record plenty of momentum into Friday’s Class 3A semifinal match against Liberty of Renton. The Chieftains beat defending state champion Seattle Prep and top-ranked Meadowdale in the first two rounds of the state tournament.
The Chieftains also carry a bit of a chip on their shoulders. Liberty was the team that ended Columbia River’s 2011 season by beating the Chieftains 2-1 in the first round of the state playoffs.
“I remember a lot of battles and we fought hard,” junior midfielder Emily Kleier said. “A lot of seniors left broken-hearted. I’m glad we get to play them again this year.”
That Columbia River has arrived unbeaten at the state semifinals is a bit of a surprise. Sure, the Chieftains have plenty of talent. But they had a new head coach, which meant both Filomon Afenegus and the players had some learning to do.
“All these girls come from different club teams. I’d never seen any of them play,” said Afenegus, who has been an assistant coach for the Columbia River boys soccer team for five seasons. “The first three to four weeks or so, it was just me getting to know them and their strengths, and how to get them to jell together.”
For Kleier and midfield teammate Emily Heaton, the change took some getting used to. Kleier played forward as a sophomore last season but now plays a more defensive position in midfield. Heaton plays central defender for her club team, but is playing alongside Kleier in front of River’s talented back four.
Kleier said it took her about four games to learn where she fit in Afenegus’ system.
“I got frustrated with myself, because I knew I wasn’t providing enough for the team” early in the season, Kleier said. “I was thinking too much and then I was not doing the right thing. I was kind of being too hard on myself. I finally started to not think and just play and it started to come for me.”
Afenegus said this team’s success has come through such selflessness.
“These girls are not only good players, but good people,” the coach said. “We have good leaders.”
Perhaps the best measure of the sacrifices players have made is the defense. Through 19 matches, Columbia River’s opponents have scored only four goals against the Chieftains — and two of those were on penalty kicks.
Sisters Haley and Sarah Case have been in the middle of that defense — Haley as the goalkeeper and Sarah as a central defender. Ana Delgadillo plays alongside Sarah Case in the middle of the defense, flanked by Taylor Hallquist on the left and Lindsay Hurley on the right.
“They are all very smart defenders. They’ve been able to adjust to each other’s playing styles very well,” Afenegus said. “On top of that, they’re also very tough and they’re very selfless. They’re willing to put their body on the line. They’re willing to do whatever is needed to keep the ball out of the net.”
Delgadillo said she knew during the first week of practice that this team had the ingredients for success.
“We were just so competitive with each other, but it was a lot of fun at the same time,” Delgadillo said. “I guess that’s when you know you have a good team, when you can have fun and still be really competitive at the same time.”
Defense is the foundation of the Chieftains success, bur Columbia River plays an attack-oriented formation with forwards Easton Kawawaki, Madison Reynolds and Kallem in front of attacking midfielder Charlene Burger.
The Chieftains have scored 74 goals and have been blanked only once — in a scoreless draw against Skyview in the third game of the season. The other draw was 1-1 at Kelso in the first battle between the top two teams in the 3A Greater St. Helens League. River won the rematch 5-0, getting goals from four players and two from Kallem.
The postseason kicked off with a 4-0 win over Hazen as Burger scored twice and had two assists. That win earned River the school’s 15th state tournament berth in girls soccer. The two state tournament wins have the Chieftains in the semifinals for the fourth time, including twice as a Class 4A school in the mid-1990s.
But until the 2009 team went all the way, no River girls team had won a semifinal or third-place match at soccer’s final four.
None of the current players were on the 2009 team — Kallem, the Chase sisters and midfielder Geneva Perez played junior varsity that season — but the memory of watching the 2009 Chieftains win the state title is vivid.
“I just remember that (championship) game, how hard they worked and how happy they were,” Sarah Chase said. “I think this year I have a chance of experiencing that.”