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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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La Center girls soccer making their run at state

Wildcats face 1A defending champ Klahowya on Friday in semifinals

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

As foreign as it seemed at the time, the La Center High girls soccer team now reflects back on its candlelight ceremony as symbolic.

Back in September ahead of the season-opening match, a pitch-black La Center Community Stadium had a distinct glow from candles held by players and coaches at midfield. Spearheaded by first-year coach Horst Malunat, the ceremony represented more than a team-bonding and culture-building exercises. It was a way to instill aspirations for the 2023 season.

What players expressed wasn’t honed in on wins and losses.

“It was more personal,” senior forward Madisen Newbury said. “I feel that really set the mood for our team socially and culturally.

“It’s definitely a fond memory to look back on.”

It’s been a season filled with memories that’s far from finished. La Center (18-2) is in the Class 1A girls soccer state semifinals for the first time in program history.

In eight prior state appearances, the Wildcats hadn’t won a state game. That changed last week behind four goals in two state playoff victories from senior Shaela Bradley and a shutout from the defense in a 1-0 state quarterfinal win last week against Cashmere to reach its first-ever girls soccer final four.

The Wildcats face defending 1A champion Klahowya at 7 p.m. Friday at Tacoma’s Mount Tahoma Stadium in the semifinals.

In the 2A semifinals, defending champion Columbia River and Ridgefield face off in an all-2A Greater St. Helens League semifinal at 1 p.m., also at Mount Tahoma Stadium.

In 2021, La Center lost a first-round state playoff game to Seattle’s The Bush School. Last fall, it fell one game shy of reaching state. This year, the Wildcats say, it all came together.

“What can we not do at this point?” Newbury said. “I feel like this means so much to the team, to our legacy, and to the younger players who are going to continue to play for the next couple of years, just knowing that they can get here.”

Newbury and Bradley, both seniors, have been part of a frontline attack for four seasons that’s been the centerpiece of La Center’s offense. The duo have a combined 56 goals and 14 assists on the season.

Bradley now has 136 career goals. In addition to high school soccer, she’s part of the pool of players on the U.S. Women’s Youth National Team. Last June, she received a call-up for the U-17 team camp in North Carolina.

Having one of the top youth players in the country not only has elevated La Center, but also Bradley’s teammates, said junior centerback Janna Croskrey said. Croskrey helps anchor a defense that’s posted 12 shutouts in 20 matches.

“I think she’s an incredible player and it’s incredible playing with her,” Croskrey said. “I’ve learned so much. I see it as an opportunity for myself to get better.

“We all learn a lot from her.”

Malunat is no stranger to Southwest Washington soccer. A one-time Clark College women’s coach and Skyview boys coach, Malunat is making his third appearance in the final four as a coach since 2019 with three different programs — the Toledo-Winlock boys, Adna girls and now La Center girls.

Malunat said as far back as his hiring last spring, he felt the Wildcats had the talent to reach a place the program had never been before. It was only a matter of putting the pieces in the right place to make it happen.

And, he said, peel back that confidence layer.

“I don’t think they believed that,” the coach said, “but I knew it was there. I had to undercover it and show them the confidence that they could do it.”

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