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Tigers fall in state quarterfinals

Rachel Rehnelt of Albert Lea pushes the ball past midfield Wednesday against Park Center at Park High School in Cottage Grove during the Class A state soccer tournament. — Micah Bader/Albert Lea Tribune

Rachel Rehnelt of Albert Lea pushes the ball past midfield Wednesday against Park Center at Park High School in Cottage Grove during the Class A state soccer tournament. — Micah Bader/Albert Lea Tribune

COTTAGE GROVE — Save after save, Kathryn Flaherty gave the Albert Lea girls’ soccer team a chance to stay alive.

Along with 17 routine grabs, Flaherty rejected Park Center’s forwards with a pair of full-extension diving saves.

“You don’t want to see those shots, but you feel pretty good after you save them,” Flaherty said. “Our defense, they played their hardest tonight. They backed me up, and I backed them up. We just played for each other.”

Despite the soaring heroics, it was a slow dribbler that found the net.

A corner kick with 25.9 seconds left in the first half led to heavy traffic in the box, and Park City’s Jill Rosby scored the only goal of the game Wednesday during the Pirates’ 1-0 win over Albert Lea in the Class A state quarterfinals at Park High School.

Until the Pirates’ goal, the game was going according to plan for Albert Lea coach Rick Barnhill. In an effort to score the equalizer, he made adjustments at halftime. Taylor Thompson moved from defenseman to forward to give the Tigers a four-striker front with a diamond midfield and two defensemen, Barnhill said.

“We changed the formation,” he said. “We just kind of went for broke. They had pressure on us, but we loaded the front and were top-heavy because I’d rather lose 2-or-3 to nothing than be sitting back. We decided to just go for it.”

Park Center had twice as much time of possession, but even with the new formation, the Tigers withstood a barrage of shots and were able to hold the Pirates scoreless in the second half with solid play from Sarah Niebuhr and Ella Zelenak.

The defenders routinely thwarted Park Center’s scoring opportunities. With 19:41 left in the game, a Niebuhr header denied the Pirates on a clean look at the goal.

Just like the Park Center had a scoring chance late in the first half, the Tigers had an opportunity with 23 seconds left in the game off of a corner kick by Holly Wichmann.

However, Albert Lea was unable to get an good look at the goal.

“The bottom line is we were trying to give ourselves a chance to win up until the final whistle, and we did that,” Barnhill said.

In Barnhill’s 11 years coaching the Tigers, this year’s squad was the third to reach the state tournament. Albert Lea qualified In 2007 and fell to The Blake School 2-0 in the quarterfinals. The Tigers returned the following year and exited with a loss 2-0 loss against Rochester Lourdes in the quarterfinals.

Albert Lea finished with an overall record of 12-4-2, which exceeded expectations of Barnhill and members of the team.

“The current seniors really thought we would struggle,” Barnhill said. “We put .500 as an objective. We thought if we could break even, we’d have really done something.”

The Tigers were led by seven seniors: Thompson, Niebuhr, Becca Dup, Wichmann, Alexa Wood, Megan Kortan, and Sage Kermes.

“I enjoyed every second with this group,” he said. “I looked forward to it every day — just being there, seeing them and taking this journey. It ended here tonight, but for me it’s going to be a lifetime memory.”